At 5am on 25 June 1950, forces from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) drove south across the 38th parallel into the Republic of Korea (ROK).

The assumption in the West at the time was that the 38-year old leader in the North, Kim Il Sung was a stooge of Moscow. Soviet archives reveal that the initiative came from Kim - always more chauvinist than Marxist-Leninist - who had pressed for a year to gain approval, first from Stalin and then from an even more reluctant Mao.

Within four days, Australia was supporting for the southerners dominated by the 75-year old Methodist, Dr Syngman Rhee, who had returned in 1945 after forty years of almost continuous exile in the United States.

Before 1942, most of the few Australians to know any Koreans were missionaries, including one of the Presbyterian aunts of prime minister Menzies. Australian prisoners-of-war encountered Koreans as their most brutal guards. In Japan, POWs worked alongside forced Korean labourers. The Korean as master and slave flowed from Japan’s annexation of the peninsula in 1910, bottling up the pressures for land reform and independence that burst forth upon Tokyo’s surrender.

The Soviets and US had agreed to a divided occupation, supervised by a four-party trusteeship to include the UK and China. On a wall map of the Far East, a US colonel drew the demarcation line as far north as he dared go without upsetting his Communist allies. Soviet forces halted at that 38th parallel and waited for the US troops.

Incursions from both sides were inevitable along a border which was no more than a surveyor’s line across mountainous terrain. Few Koreans accepted division of their homeland. Indeed, a summons for the Australian UNCOK rapporteur to appear before the UN General Assembly in 1951 worried Canberra least that officer’s documentation of ‘the frequently expressed desire of Syngman Rhee to invade North Korea’ embarrass the US position of unprovoked aggression by the communists.

Australia was the only country to have members on all the three successive UN Commissions on Korea. Hence, it is possible to sketch the fate of Korea in the late 1940s through the reports and actions of Australian representatives.

The arrangements between the US and the USSR broke down early in 1946.

At the UN, Australia joined Canada early in 1947 as the only opponents of separate elections, but later came around the US position. In New York, late in 1948, an Australian diplomat, James Plimsoll, crafted a resolution to set up a government in the south without endorsing its claim to represent the whole country. Australia’s man in Seoul absented himself from the proclamation of the new state in August 1948. In February 1948, Australia’s Colonel Jackson had concluded that any elections conducted under Rhee would return ‘a rightist Fascist government’. Canberra withheld recognition for a year.

Australian officials condemned the Rhee regime as ‘associated closely with unscrupulous landlords’ and for keeping itself in power by ‘a vicious police’ inherited from the Japanese. In November 1949, Australian foreign correspondent Dennis Warner quoted a moderate: ‘the police are terrorist and the terrorists are police’. A month into the war, a Sydney Morning Herald journalist reported ‘apathy’ and avarice as the dominant attitudes among a peasantry ‘bullied by the South Korean military  … which take … what they want’.

By far the most significant Australian activities were those of Squadron leader R. J. Rankin and Major F. S. B. Peach who were the only UN military observers to reach the 38th parallel. Relying on ROK informants, the pair spent the fortnight up to 23 June 1950 around the border where they saw no sign of ‘unusual activity’ by either side, yet came away with the impression that a front-line intelligence post ‘knew that there was something up’. Rankin and Peach returned to Seoul to submit these impressions hours before the northerners moved.

At the United Nations, the US used a beefed-up synopsis of the Australians’ report to secure the seven Security Council votes needed to call for assistance to the ROK. The Soviet permanent representative had absented himself in protest against the presence of the Nationalist Chinese in refuge on Formosa from the communists governing the mainland. Paradoxically, the US claim that the Australians had confirmed an invasion from the north was as false as the allegation that the north had initiated the war was true.

By the end of June 1950, Australia offered the frigate Shoalhaven and the destroyer Bataan, with the proviso that they not be used around Formosa where the US had sent its Seventh Fleet to prevent a conclusion to the civil war in China.

Following the maxim that war was publicity by other means, US Commander General Douglas Macarthur annoyed Menzies by informing reporters of a request for the RAAF No. 77 Mustang Squadron based in Japan before Canberra could consider the matter.

Menzies opposed sending Australian land forces. His government had decided to bring home its contingents in the occupation of Japan to train the 18-year olds who were being called up for National Service.

Dominating Menzies’ strategy was commitment to the United Kingdom. On 21 June, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field-Marshall Sir William Slim, directed talks in Melbourne to again make the Middle East Australia’s priority in event of a global conflict, a role which Menzies welcomed.

Hostilities in Korea only confirmed this Europe-centered thinking. Flying to London on 10 July, and writing with one of the new-fangled ballpoint pens in an old school exercise book, Menzies opined: ‘All these Asian adventures are diversion by the Russians (a) to contain substantial democratic forces (b) to create a psychology which will make countries like Australia unwilling to make commitments outside SE Asia’.

On 14 July, UN Secretary General Trygve Lie approached member states for land troops. With Menzies away, External Affairs Minister Percy Spender grabbed at the chance to help the US and thus get its support for his Pacific Pact, an equivalent to NATO. Menzies, on the other hand, preferred Australia’s joining NATO. Advised in London by Slim that the British would not be sending soldiers, Menzies cabled ‘No’ to Spender, before setting out for New York on the Queen Mary.

Meanwhile, the UK Military liaison in New York warned London that the US was annoyed at Britain’s failure to participate. Hence, on 26 July, its High Commission advised External Affairs that, in a few hours, His Majesty’s government would announce its offer of land forces. Department head, Alan Watt, took a ‘fast car’ from Canberra to Moss Vale where Spender was recuperating from a perforated ulcer. Alarmed at being seen to trail the UK in support for the US, Spender strode up and down: ‘Watt, it’s not going to happen, its not going to happen’.

Spender then dragged Acting Prime Minister Artie Fadden of the platform at a Country Party conference in Brisbane to tell him he had to offer 3rd Battalion, RAR, from Japan. Fadden feared the wrath of the ‘Big Fellow’ but finally went along. At 7pm, ABC news announced an ‘in principle’ agreement.

Menzies sounded ‘sour’ when Spender phoned him on board ship. Did he suspect that his ministers were plotting his overthrow as in 1941? Any such worries were sustained by Spender’s inability to give the background, advising him not to speak to the press until briefed by an External Affairs representative who would board the liner before she docked on 27th. After a few minutes in his cabin with those cables, the prime minister emerged to praise the decision as his own.

Australian support for the US was never uncritical. As the US-led forces pushed north over the 38th parallel, Canberra opposed handing administration of the north over to Rhee’s thugs, was against both the bombing of China and the use of Nationalist Chinese troops.

The communist press here accused Menzies of trading ‘diggers for dollars’ when he returned with $US250m. in loans from the World Bank. It is truer to say that Spender had bartered Australians for his Pacific Pact, only to be fobbed off a year later with the ANZUS Treaty. Spender and Menzies thought they were choosing between two theatres of conflict when they were setting in place another milestone in a shift between two ‘great and powerful friends’.

Demand for war materials capsized the Australian economy as 17 percent inflation made mock of Menzies’s election promise to ‘put value back into the pound’. To contain local demand and avoid a currency appreciation, the government imposed a 20 percent withholding tax on wool earnings which incensed Fadden’s supporters.

On 5 August, 80 percent of Australians polled by Gallup supported engagement in Korea, with only 5 percent against. The respondents were less certain why hostilities had commenced. Six out of ten blamed communist or Russian aggression; 9 percent identified a civil war, and 7 percent pointed to US greed. A quarter had no opinion. Only a third favoured introducing Japanese troops and no more than a quarter wanted to use the atom bomb. One in three feared that the conflict was the prelude to yet another world war, compared with 55 percent of that opinion in the USA.

Before the achievement of a lasting armistice in July 1953, 278 Australian servicemen were dead. Three to four million Koreans had lost their lives, 10 percent of the population. The outcome of  ‘so terrible a liberation’ was the status quo ante along the 38th parallel. US firepower did not deter communist-led national liberation movement across Indo-China. Both north and south were even less democratic.