The crisis in Korea originated in the closing phases of the Second World War. Control of the Korean peninsula, formerly occupied by Japan, was entrusted to the Allies, and the United States. The Soviet Union divided responsibility for the country between them at the 38th parallel. Over the course of the next few years, the Soviet Union fostered a strong communist regime in the north, while the US supported the government in the south.
By mid-1950, tensions between the two zones, each under a different regime, had escalated to the point where two hostile armies were building up along the border. On 25 June a North Korean army finally crossed into the southern zone and advanced towards the capital, Seoul. The city fell in less than a week, and North Korean forces continued their southward drive towards the strategically important port of Pusan.
Within two days, the US had offered air and sea support to South Korea, and the United Nations Security Council asked all its members to assist in repelling the North Korean attack. Twenty-one nations responded by providing troops, ships, aircraft and medical teams. Australia's contribution included 77 Squadron of the RAAF and the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR), both of which were stationed in Japan at the time as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force.
When 3 RAR arrived in Pusan on 28 September, the North Korean advance had been halted and their army was in full retreat. The Supreme Commander of the UN forces, General Douglas MacArthur, was given permission to pursue them into North Korea, despite warnings from the Chinese government that it would not countenance any UN troops crossing the border. 3 RAR moved north as part of the invasion force and fought their first major action near the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. As the UN forces continued their advance towards the Yalu river on the border between North Korea and Manchuria, a series of successes led many to believe that the UN forces would soon bring the war to an end.
At the same time, unknown to the UN commanders, the Chinese government had made good its threat and moved 18 divisions into North Korea. They struck with overwhelming force against US troops on 1 November, sending them into retreat.
By mid-November, despite the continuing Chinese attacks in the harsh winter weather, MacArthur prepared a massive advance to the Yalu River to defeat the North Korean and Chinese forces. One day after the attack commenced, the Chinese struck back, inflicting successive defeats on the UN forces and forcing them into retreat towards the 38th parallel.
The Chinese halted their offensive in January 1951, Seoul once again having fallen to the invading forces. At the UN headquarters in New York, efforts were made to conclude a ceasefire with the communist coalition, but negotiations broke down before any progress had been made. By the end of February, Chinese resistance collapsed south of the Han River near Seoul, and the city was recaptured by UN forces in mid-March.
UN commanders were then faced with the question of whether to cross the 38th parallel once again. Opinions were divided between those who favoured a cease-fire along the border and those, including MacArthur, who wished to renew the northward advance. On 11 April 1951 MacArthur was dismissed from his command, as it was feared in Washington that his intemperance was likely to escalate the war.
Australian troops participated in two major battles in 1951. On the evening of 22 April, Chinese forces attacked the Kapyong valley and forced South Korean and New Zealand troops into retreat; other UN troops, including Australians, were ordered to halt the attack. After a night of fierce fighting, during which their positions were overrun, the Australians recaptured their positions and stalled the Chinese advance, at a cost of only 32 men killed and 53 wounded. For their contribution to this action, 3 RAR was awarded a US Presidential Citation.
The second major battle for the Australians was Operation Commando. This was an attack against a Chinese-held location in a bend of the Imjin, a river running north-south that crosses the 38th parallel just above Seoul. Here the Commonwealth Division, had two key objectives: Hills 355 and 317. The attack began on 3 October, and after five days of heavy fighting the Chinese withdrew. Twenty Australians were killed in the battle, and 89 were wounded.
From 1951, both sides found themselves engaged in a war reminiscent of the Western Front, where men lived in tunnels, and sandbagged forts behind barbed wire defences. The war was generally fought with artillery, mines and in set-piece battles. At night patrols ventured into no man's land to raid enemy positions. Between 1951 and the war's end, 3 RAR occupied trenches at the eastern extremity of the Commonwealth Division's position. This was in hills north-east of the Imjin River. There they faced heavily fortified Chinese positions across a stretch of no man's land, which ranged from 300 metres to 2 kilometres in width.
As the war settled it became apparent that a negotiated truce was the only solution, but military pressure was maintained on the communist forces, to extract concessions at the peace talks. As fighting continued, many of the UN combatants grew less willing to contribute more ground forces to the conflict. While some countries were keen to remove their troops from Korea, Australia increased its commitment, and the government sent a second battalion, 1 RAR, which joined the Commonwealth Division on 1 June 1952. The battalion remained in Korea for twelve months, leaving in March 1953 replaced by 2 RAR in April.
After 2 years of negotiations, even as heavy fighting continued at the front, the UN and North Korean leaderships signed an agreement on 27 July 1953. This agreement technically brought the war to an end, but a state of suspended hostilities continued to exist between North and South Korea. Even today the situation remains unresolved.
In the three years of fighting 1,263 men of the Commonwealth forces were killed and a further 4,817 were wounded. The US lost 33,000 men. Australian casualties numbered more than 1,500, 339 of which were killed. Almost half a million South Koreans died as a result of the war, and an unknown number of North Koreans and Chinese.
Sources and further reading
N. Bartlett, With the Australians in Korea, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1954.
Peter Dennis et al., The Oxford companion to Australian military history, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1995.
J. Hooker, Korea: the forgotten war, Time Life Books, Sydney, 1988.
G. McCormack, Cold war hot war: an Australian perspective on the Korean War, Hale and Ironmonger, Sydney, 1983.
Thumbnail image: Korea, 1951-09. Hill 317 (Maryang San) Captured by 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, (3RAR), During Operation Commando. Austalian War Memorial Collection. Accession Number 044421.