The 'Know Your Region' series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It's important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.
THE KOREAS – THE KOREAN DIVIDE AND THE KOREAN WAR
On this page:
- Korea in the early 20th Century
- The Division of Korea
- The Korean War
- Australians in the Korean War
- The Demilitarized Zone
Most currently serving readers of The Cove will have grown up in the knowledge that the Korean Peninsula consists of two countries, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the North, and the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the South, and may have accepted without question why this is the case. The history of the Korean Divide, and the resulting demarcation between the two countries that we see today, is as a result of colonialism, political differences and conflicts. As you will see below, one such conflict, the Korean War, is a significant part of Australian military history and involved over 17,000 Australians, who served with distinction.
This video gives a great summary of the Korean Divide:
This documentary gives a more detailed account:
Korea in the early Twentieth Century
Historically, aside from some regional differences in the way of dialects and customs, the whole of Korea was culturally similar before the North-South divide which we see today. In the latter half of the 19th Century, peace and stability were the norm in Korea, as for over two and a half millennia, what was known as the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ had limited any contact with other countries.
In 1910, and as the predominant power on the Korean Peninsula following victories in the first Sino-Japanese War, and the Russo-Japanese War, Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula as a colony and for the next 35 years, imposed strict rule on the Korean people.
Under Japanese rule, schools and universities forbade anyone from speaking Korean, public places adopted Japanese too, and Koreans were compelled to change their names to Japanese ones. Much of the Korean culture was wiped out as over 200,000 historical documents were burned. However, the Japanese also industrialised the Peninsula in the 20s and 30s particularly in the North, and by the time Japanese colonial rule ended in 1945, Korea was the second most industrialised nation in Asia, after Japan.
This video summarises Korea under Japanese occupation:
For more information on early 20th Century Korea see the resources below:
The Division of Korea
At the Yalta Conference in 1945, the Soviet Union agreed to enter into a war against Japan. Under the terms of the subsequent Potsdam Conference, it was agreed that the Soviets would occupy the North of Korea, and the US would occupy the south. This was to be a temporary occupation, although no end-date was set, with the intent to liberate Korea from Japanese control and eventually establish the country as an independent nation.
The line of latitude 38˚ North was to be the division between North and South Korea, the decision for this was hastily made by two US Army officers using a National Geographic map. To their surprise the 38th parallel dividing line was accepted by both their own commanders, and the Soviets.
On 08 August 1945, six days after the Potsdam Conference, the Soviets declared war on Japan and began invading northern Korea the following day. A few days later, Japan surrendered. In line with the agreement, U.S. forces entered southern Korea on 08 September 1945.
For more information on the division of Korea see the resources below:
The Korean War
By 1947, the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, exacerbated by political differences between Koreans in the North and those in the South, led to a breakdown in negotiations over a unified government within Korea. In 1948 separate governments were established in Korea, a pro-Soviet government in Pyongyang, and a pro-US government in Seoul, with both governments claiming to legitimately represent the entire Korean people.
Tensions escalated and on 25 June 1950, the DPRK invaded the ROK in an attempt to unify the peninsula by force. Under UN Security Council Resolution 83, a coalition of US-led troops, which included Australia, Great Britain, Canada, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Colombia, Ethiopia, South Africa, New Zealand, Turkey, Greece, Thailand, Philippines and Luxembourg, came to the assistance of the ROK. The DPRK received Soviet weapons and air support, and hundreds of thousands of troops from the People’s Republic of China.
In July 1953 after millions of deaths and significant physical destruction, the Korean War ended almost where it began, along the 38th parallel. With Northern and Southern Korea roughly divided into equal territories along a cease-fire line, a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was established, and which still forms the boundary between the DPRK and ROK today.
For more information on the Korean war see the resources below:
Australians in the Korean War
Australians had been involved as UN Observers in Korea prior to the commencement of the Korean War and were there when conflict broke out. Australia was one of the first nations to commit fighting forces to assist the ROK.
This short video summarises Australia’s involvement in the Korean War:
Australian Infantry Battalions formed part of the 1st British Commonwealth Division, most notably 3 RAR, which in 1950 battled in Sariwon, Yongju, Chingju, and in Pakchon, where Commonwealth Forces were greatly outnumbered by their Chinese counterparts. 3 RAR distinguished themselves in major battles at Kapyong during April 1951 and again in Maryang San during October of the same year.
1 RAR and 2 RAR served on rotation from 1952 to 1953, as well as conducting earlier training of reinforcements for 3 RAR, prior to their own deployments. Notable battles include the 1 RAR attack against Chinese positions at Hill 227 as part of Operation Blaze, and during Operation Fauna, an operation to secure prisoners and destroy enemy positions on and around Hill 335. 2 RAR and 3 RAR fought the last action of the War, when they were attacked by large numbers of Chinese troops at The Battle of the Samichon River – The Hook.
Of the many battle honours won by the Australian Army in Korea, three major honours are proudly emblazoned on Regimental Colours:
- KOREA 1950–53 (1RAR, 2RAR, 3RAR),
- KAPYONG (3RAR),
- MARYANG SAN (3RAR).
During the course of the Korean War the Australian Army deployed 10,657 soldiers, with 24 prisoners of war, 1,210 wounded and 293 killed. Lest we forget.
The Korean War Legacy Foundation is an excellent repository for information on Australia’s involvement in the Korean War, and contains nearly 1000 Korean War oral histories, over 2900 video clips, and over 1800 photos
For more information on Australia’s involvement in the Korean War, see the resources below:
- Australians at War – The Korean War
- Remembering the Korean War
- Australians at War in Korea
- KAPYONG - 27th Commonwealth Brigade Face Chinese 118th Division
- Battle of Kapyong – Korean War
- The Battle of Kapyong - 1951
- Battle of Kapyong 1951: Foxtel Korea
- Battle of Maryang San (text only no sound)
- Interview with Sir Francis Hassett (Battle of Maryang San)
- Mass attack on the Hook – Remembering the Korean War
- 1951 – The critical year of the Korean War
- Remembering the battle of Kapyong 70 years on – ABC
- In from the Cold: Reflections on Australia’s Korean War (PDF)
- The Korean War 1950-1953
- Out in the Cold: Australia's involvement in the Korean War - Maps: the course of the war
- The ANZAC Portal: The Korean War
- What was Australia’s role in the Korean War” - SBS
- Kapyong: an epic battle in a forgotten war
- The battle for Maryang San
- ANZAC Portal: Battle of the Hook
- Digger History: Korea
The Demilitarized Zone
The DPRK and ROK are now two very different countries, each shaped by different political influences and the separation from their North/South counterparts. These cultural differences will be explored further in this KYR series. The two countries are separated by what is known as the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ, which was established on 27 July 1953. The actual 250km border, or demarcation line between the two countries, sits in the middle of this 4km wide buffer zone but unlike other national borders, nobody can cross this border in either direction.
The only place on the DMZ where it is possible to step foot onto the other side of the border is at the T1-T3 conference rooms, where US President Trump famously became the first sitting US President to cross into the DPRK in 2019. The video below is a good explainer on the DMZ.
For more information on the Korean DMZ see the resources below:
- The Korean War is often called, 'The Forgotten War'. Considering it was conducted as a UN action and often not perceived as an actual war, has enough been done to recognise those who served in the conflict? What lessons can be learned from the Korean War about commemoration of our soldiers in our more recent conflicts?
- In recent years, authorities from the DPRK and the ROK have allowed family members to reunite, many having been separated for over 70 years since the end of hostilities. Is this a sign of easing tensions between to two Koreas? What other key actions would need to occur to assist in easing of tensions?
- The Korean War saw some of the fiercest conflicts ever waged by Australian forces, including consideration of both world wars. No Australian Victoria Crosses were awarded during this entire conflict. Is this reflective of the sometimes held view that this wasn’t an actual war? Should some of the awards be reviewed retrospectively for upgrading?
- Despite having major ideological differences, Koreans have some of the closet ethnic and cultural ties of all the world’s people. Is the current divide purely ideological and driven by external power influences, and can Korea one day dream of reunification? What would need to happen for this to occur?