The Korean war

The Korean War began on 25 June 1950, when North Korean forces launched an invasion of South Korea. Personnel from the Australian Army, RAAF, and RAN fought as part of the United Nations (UN) multinational force, defending South Korea from the Communist force of North Korea.

The end of the war came with the signing of an armistice on 27 July 1953, three years and one month after the war began. The ending was so sudden that some soldiers had to be convinced it really was over. After the war ended, the presence of Australians in Korea continued with a peacekeeping force until 1957.

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, and the United States and 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.

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As the war settled into stalemate it became apparent that a negotiated truce was the only solution, but military pressure was maintained on the communist forces, the better to extract concessions at the peace talks. As fighting continued, however, many of the UN combatants grew less willing to contribute more ground forces to the conflict. While some countries were keen to extricate 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 and replaced by 2 RAR in April.

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After two years and 17 days 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 for many years, and 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, while the US lost 33,000 men. Australian casualties numbered more than 1,500, of whom 340 were killed. Almost half a million South Koreans died as a result of the war, and an unknown number of North Koreans and Chinese.

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