The Korean War – 60 years on
26 Jul 2013|

Hill Salmon, Korea, 1951-04-17. Carrying heavy loads on their backs, soldiers (right) of K Company, 19th Regimental Combat Team (RCT), 6th Republic of Korea (ROK) Infantry Division, arrive on Hill Salmon to relieve C Company, 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR). Two Australian soldiers (left) are sitting on the ground with their packs on their backs, ready to move out. The ROKs abandoned the hill to Chinese forces when they attacked a few days later. (Donor I. Robertson)

This weekend marks the 60th anniversary of the armistice between North and South Korea which ended the fighting of the Korean War but not technically the war; a formal peace treaty was never signed. Australia was heavily involved in the Korean War, committing 17,000 personnel, and we continue to have a very direct interest in peace on the peninsular because we’re a signatory of the 1953 ceasefire. Sixty years on, it’s worth looking at how both the North and South have fared, and what it means for Australia.

One of the biggest surprises is that there still is a North Korea. Since the early 1990s, DPRK watchers have been falsely predicting that the country would collapse, but instead the North endures, and has even undergone two dynastic successions. Today Kim Jong-un is reshuffling his military hierarchy, ‘retiring’ several Generals from his father’s era and appointing new ones. It remains a belligerent state that has pursued nuclear and missile programs. There have been a string of provocative acts from North Korea: most recently, a successful launch of its long-range Unha-3 missile in December 2012 and a third nuclear test in February this year. In response, the US has made attempts to encourage DPRK to denuclearise, but there’s little chance of success considering the North’s recalcitrance and cases such as Libya that further dissuade Pyongyang.

The nuclear and missile programs will continue to develop until the North Korean leadership feels that it’s secure enough to forego them. But no security guarantees from current and likely future US administrations are on the horizon. Given past behaviour, we’re probably in the part of the cycle where North Korea is unlikely to engage in any large scale provocations in the immediate future. Instead, Pyongyang is entering talks to reopen the Kaesong industrial complex it closed, reconnecting a key hotline with Seoul it cut, and showing a willingness to return to six party talks to which it said it would never return. But it’s probably just treading its usual path of ramping up hostilities, then reversing them in exchange for international aid and concessions.

Despite the now routine ups and downs, North Korea’s future remains uncertain. The economy is actually growing, but some analysts say the growth is so fragile that the weather could affect it. On the other hand, 60 years have resulted in something quite different for South Korea. It’s now the world’s fourteenth largest economy and is gaining influence and prestige globally. It hosted the G20 Summit in 2010 and has been active in the United Nations and in international peacekeeping missions.

So the 60 years since the armistice was signed have heightened the divide between the two countries, and tensions continue to ebb and flow on the Korean Peninsula. With no end to the enmity in sight, the longer North and South remain divided and the greater the disparities in political doctrine, economies, living standards, and culture, the more difficult and unlikely unification becomes.

While the DPRK remains stuck in an immediate post-war construct (largely of its own making), the South is taking some final steps out of the shadows of the war. In train now is the transfer of wartime control of the South Korean military from the US back to Seoul. During the 1950–53 war, the US assumed all control over the South Korean military, then returned peacetime control in 1994. So for the first time in 60 years, if it comes off, Seoul will have complete autonomy over its military during wartime.

In preparation for the handover, Seoul is in negotiations with the US to purchase new military hardware, including missiles and next generation fighter jets. The planned upgrade of South Korea’s military forces will enhance South Korea’s contribution to trilateral military exercises with the US and Australia as well as the US and Japan.

South Korea is Australia’s fourth largest trading partner and our second most important security partner in Asia after Japan. Earlier this month, Australia and South Korea held their first Foreign and Defence (2+2) Ministerial Meeting. While Australia has 2+2 meetings with several other countries, until now South Korea only held them with the US. The commencement of regular 2+2 meetings will help Australia and South Korea build their strategic policy coordination and will hopefully propel the strategic partnership into modern-day relevance to policy makers.

Despite our similarities and shared interests, South Korea has been largely overlooked by Australia. As Jeffery Robertson blogged on The Diplomat, ‘To Australians, South Korea is remembered as a distant battlefield…and sensationalized as a bizarre remnant of the Cold War’. Emblematic of this low-level of interest in modern-day Korea is the recent Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, in which Korean is left off the list of priority Asian languages and Hindi (despite increasing levels of English literacy in India) is included.

When war broke out on the peninsula in 1950, Australians knew little about Korea and not much thought was given to the country. While Australia’s relations with the North remain extremely poor, our relations at all levels with South Korea have strengthened considerably. As I’ve argued in the past, Australia should have a policy of engagement with North Korea. Where the South is concerned, Australian perceptions have not caught up with the reality. South Korea is a far more important strategic partner than is understood and the importance of the security of the Korean peninsula should feature more prominently in the minds our policy makers.

Hayley Channer is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.