After World War II, Korea was divided into north and south. Despite United Nations (UN) attempts to reunify the 2 Koreas, they remain divided to this day.
Some 18,000 Australians served in the Australian Army, Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. To this day, small numbers of Australians continue to participate in UN missions and peacekeeping operations in the demilitarised zone between North Korea and South Korea.
From 1910 to the end of World War II, Korea was a Japanese colony. When the Allies defeated Japan in World War II, they split the Korean Peninsula in 2, along the 38th parallel of latitude.
The north was occupied by the Soviet Union. The United States (US) occupied the south. This was meant to be a temporary occupation while Japanese forces were disarmed. The plan was that it would lead to an international trusteeship to prepare Korea for self-rule.
The UN first established the UN Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK) in 1947. UNTCOK arrived in Korea in January 1948. It comprised representatives from Australia, Canada, China, El Salvador, France, India, the Philippines, Syria, and Ukraine. While the UN aimed to withdraw occupation troops in the north and south and reunify the peninsula, instead, the 2 Koreas became more divided.
With the start of the Cold War, relations between the US and the Soviet Union broke down. The planned trusteeship over Korea did not happen, and the question was referred to the UN in 1948.
Following elections in May 1948, a conservative, democratic government formed in the south. This was a representative government, similar to Western democracies, where the people voted to elect a Constituent Assembly, which then voted to elect a president. South Korea inaugurated the Republic of Korea on 15 August 1948, with Rhee Syngman as president.
The Soviet Union rejected the UN's terms. It refused to allow UN-supervised elections in the north. The Soviets held their own elections on 25 August 1948 for the Supreme People's Assembly.
In contrast to the democratic elections in South Korea, North Korea's elections involved only one party. The North Korean constitution calls this 'a dictatorship of people's democracy'. It means there is just one supreme political party by law. North Korea established the Democratic People's Republic of Korea on 3 September. Kim Il-sung became leader.
On 12 December, the UN General Assembly declared that Rhee's administration was the only lawful government in Korea. In the words of the Assembly, it:
Declares that this Government is based on elections which were a valid expression of the free will of the electorate of that part of Korea and which were observed by the Temporary Commission and that this is the only such Government in Korea.
['A/RES/293, The Problem of the Independence of Korea', December 12, 1948, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, United Nations General Assembly, Yearbook of the United Nations, 1947-48 (New York: Department of Public Information, United Nations, 1949), p. 290]
In reaction to a Soviet resolution to disband UNTCOK, the UN General Assembly rejected this proposal. Instead, it created a replacement, the UN Commission on Korea (UNCOK), on 12 December 1948. UNCOK sought to bring about the unification of Korea. It had the same 7 member nations, including Australia, as had UNTCOK.
Australian observers' vital role
By May 1950, the divided Korean Peninsula was on the brink of war. At this time, there were just 2 military observers in Korea. Both were Australian.
On 24 June 1950, Major Peach, Squadron Leader Rankin and a UN civilian and head of the UNCOK Secretariat, Charles Coates from England, completed an observation report of South Korean forces along the border between North Korea and South Korea. Over 2 weeks, their inspection tour along the 38th Parallel took them from coast to coast. Although they could visit South Korean military posts and defences, they could not cross this line to the north.
Their report concluded:
No reports... had been received of any unusual activity on the part of the North Korean forces that would indicate any imminent change in the general situation on the parallel.
[Londey, Peter; Crawley, Rhys; Horner, David (2020). The Long Search for Peace: Volume 1, The Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations.]
Korea at war
At 4 am the next day, North Korean tanks and infantry stormed across almost the whole length of the border. Based on Peach and Rankin's report, the UN determined that South Korea was defending against North Korea's 'well-planned, concerted and full-scale invasion of South Korea'. This was war. The UN responded and passed resolutions allowing South Korea to use force to eject the North Korean invaders.
Peach and Rankin's report has since been described as the most important document written by Australian UN observers in Australia's peacekeeping history. In the words of Korean War official historian Robert O'Neill:
The journey of Peach and Rankin ranks as one of the most consequential reconnaissances ever conducted by Australian serving officers.
[Robert O'Neill quoted in Londey, Peter; Crawley, Rhys; Horner, David (2020). The Long Search for Peace: Volume 1, The Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations.]
Some 18,000 Australians went on to fight in the 3-year Korean War to keep South Korea free. The RAN, RAAF and Australian Army defended South Korea under United Nations Command as part of a multinational force involving 21 nations. North Korea was backed by China and the Soviet Union.
The Korean War was the first major conflict of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. Over 6 million personnel were involved, from both sides.
The Korean War continued until an armistice was signed on 27 July 1953. This created the Korean Demilitarized Zone to separate North Korea and South Korea.
Some 18,000 Australian military personnel served in the Korean War. More than 350 lost their lives, more than 1,200 were wounded, and 30 were taken prisoner.
United Nations Commission for the Unification and Rehabilitation of Korea (UNCURK), 1950–1973
The United Nations Commission for the Unification and Rehabilitation of Korea (UNCURK) was set up in October 1950. Member countries were Australia, Chile, the Netherlands, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey, and Thailand.
When the UN believed the Korean War would be over quickly, it intended UNCURK to monitor the withdrawal of occupation forces from Korea, and help reunify and rehabilitate Korea. But by late November, China had entered the war. The UN realised the conflict would last longer than it had initially hoped, and prompt unification and rehabilitation would not be possible. By the end of 1950, some members wanted to terminate UNCURK. They felt it was impossible to carry out its tasks.
An Australian diplomat, James Plimsoll, served in this mission. Acting as a foreign adviser, he explained the views of the UN to Rhee, and had considerable influence over the Korean president. Plimsoll's second in command was Harold Bullock. Both men had served in World War II.
Plimsoll was key in keeping UNCURK operational. He had suggested that UNCURK's role should be to, "maintain morale, and act as the political representative of the United Nations".
By mid-1951, the UN had redefined UNCURK's role. Its new duties were to:
- liaise with the South Korean Government
- report to the UN
- observe elections
- investigate allegations of the use of poison gas, mistreatment of prisoners of war and civilians, and atrocities.
UNCURK continued until 1973, conducting various roles, including:
- trying to solve problems relating to the economic reconstruction of Korea
- monitoring the refugee crisis in the temporary wartime capital of Pusan (now Busan)
- liaising with the Rhee government
- overseeing South Korean elections.
More than half a million displaced people fled to Pusan, first from Chinese-occupied Seoul and later from North Korea.
United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC), 1953
The UN set up this commission at the end of the Korean War, in July 1953. It has operated ever since. Its purpose was to supervise the Korean Armistice Agreement. It was the world's first attempt at collective security under the UN. Collective security is where several countries cooperate to strengthen their security. Today, the United Nations Command comprises:
- the Netherlands
- New Zealand
- the Philippines
- Republic of Korea
- Republic of South Africa
- United Kingdom
- United States
- Republic of Korea.
The UN designed UNCMAC to:
- implement the terms of the Armistice
- investigate, negotiate and settle alleged violations of the agreement
- liaise between commanders from each side.
The Australian codename for this mission is 'Operation Linesman'.
Originally, 6 members of the Australian armed forces served in this mission. This included the rotating service of one Australian Defence Force (ADF) senior officer and one ADF senior non-commissioned officer. There is an Australian officer on a rotational basis with UN Command as deputy commander.
The current Australian contribution to the Inter-Korean peace process, at the request of the UN Command, is 4 personnel. A total of 68 Australians have served.
Operation Linesman today
In Australia's Operation Linesman, a small team operates in the demilitarised zone between North Korea and South Korea. It monitors projects coming out of the Comprehensive Military Agreement signed by the 2 Koreas in September 2018.
The team ensures activities are completed in line with the Korean Armistice Agreement. These activities include:
- clearance of explosives
- respectful recovery of human remains.
Along with diplomatic and technical roles, the recovery of the remains of military personnel who died in the Korean War is an example of the challenging and varied activities of peacekeepers today.
We commemorate Korean Veterans' Day on 27 July each year.
National Peacekeepers' Day
On 14 September each year, we observe National Peacekeepers' Day. It's the anniversary of the day Australia became the world's first peacekeepers to deploy into the field, in the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1947. It's a day to recognise the important work of those who have served, and continue to serve, in the name of global peace.
Learn more about Australia's peacekeeping missions since 1947.
International Day of UN Peacekeepers
29 May is a day of commemoration and acknowledgement of all military, police and civilian personnel who have served as peacekeepers with the UN. Since UN peacekeeping began, more than 4,000 peacekeepers from many countries have lost their lives while performing their duties under the UN flag.
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Londey, Peter; Crawley, Rhys; Horner, David. The Long Search for Peace: Volume 1, The Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations. Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
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Wilson Centre Digital Archive, A/RES/293, The Problem of the Independence of Korea, accessed 15 July 2022, https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/117706United