Seventy years ago today, at 10 o’clock in the morning, two military delegations met in a building in the Korean village of Panmunjom. Entering from one side was the UN delegation led by Lieutenant General William Harrison of the United States Army. Entering from the other side was the North Korean and Chinese delegation led by General Nam Il of the Korean People’s Army. Not a word was spoken. Neither delegation acknowledged each other. Documents were signed as the sound of guns continued to be heard in the distance.
It had taken more than two years to negotiate that Armistice agreement. But in ten minutes – after more than three years of fighting – a ceasefire was agreed to and would come into effect at 10 o’clock that evening. The Korean War was over. More than 1,000 days earlier, the forces of Communist North Korea crossed the 38th parallel to invade the democratic South.
The Korean War was far more than a clash between two countries occupying the same peninsular. It was the first major hot conflict of the Cold War. A conflict in which the North was backed by the Soviet Union and Communist China. And the South was backed by United Nations member states under the leadership of the United States. The Korean War was the first major ideological battleground between communism and capitalism; between dictatorship and democracy. What began as a destructive dance up-and-down the country between the opposing sides, ended where it started – in stalemate at the 38th parallel.
Australia was among the first countries to commit to the United Nations-led defence of the Republic of Korea. More than 17,000 Australians from our Army, Navy and Air Force served during the war of 1950 to 1953. 340 Australians died. More than 1,200 were wounded. And 30 became prisoners of war. On this 70th anniversary of the Armistice, we remember them all.
In writing about the Korean War historian, Max Hastings, said that many veterans returned home ‘to discover that their experience was of no interest whatsoever to their fellow-countrymen’. He said:
“The war seemed an unsatisfactory, inglorious, and thus unwelcome memory…
Korea was seen only as a running sore, belatedly cauterised in July 1953.”
It is why the Korean War is often referred to as ‘the forgotten war’. To this day, the Korean War can appear as a mere blip on the historical radar. It receives less attention than it should, given the proximate storm of the Second World War.
Our veterans deserve so much better. Our long dead deserve so much better.
As we remember the Korean War, let us never forget that Australians fought on that foreign peninsula to defend those who desired self-determination and liberty – to stand against those hell-bent on conquest. Their service and sacrifice was not in vain, regardless of the Korean War’s outcome.
Today, satellite images of Korea at night show an illuminated south in contrast to a darkened north. How different would our region be today had Australians not fought and died for those cherished values which are more enduring than any conflict.
On this 70th anniversary of the Armistice, we proudly acknowledge that all Australians who served in Korea have secured their place in Australia’s pantheon of war heroes. We thank them today and all our tomorrows. Remembered always, they will be.
27 July 2023