The Korean War
1950 – 1953
The crisis in Korea originated in the closing phases of the Second World War, when control of the Korean peninsula, formerly occupied by Japan, was entrusted to the Allies.
The United States and the Soviet Union divided responsibility for the country between them at the 38th parallel. By mid-1950, tensions between the two zones had escalated. On 25 June a North Korean army 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 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. 21 nations responded. Australia’s contribution included 77 Squadron of the RAAF and the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR).
When 3 RAR arrived in Pusan, the North Korean advance had been halted and their army was in full retreat. The UN forces commander, General MacArthur, was given permission to pursue them into North Korea. 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, a series of successes led many to believe that the UN forces would soon bring the war to an end.
At this point, China entered the war and moved 18 divisions into North Korea, attacking the UN forces, inflicting 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. At the UN, efforts were made to conclude a ceasefire without success. 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, the line of war remained around the 38th parallel – where it had started.
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, an attack against a Chinese-held salient in a bend of the Imjin, a river running north-south that crosses the 38th parallel just above Seoul. Here the Commonwealth Division, including the Australians, had two key objectives: Hills 355 and 317. The attack began on 3 October, and after five days of heavy fighting the Chinese withdrew. 20 Australians were killed in the battle and 89 were wounded.
From 1951 on, both sides found themselves engaged in a war of attrition reminiscent of the Western Front, where men lived in tunnels, redoubts and sandbagged forts behind barbed wire defences. The war was generally fought with artillery and mines and in set-piece battles; at night, patrols ventured into no man’s land to raid enemy positions.
As the war settled into stalemate it became apparent that a negotiated truce was the only solution. 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.