The war begins – the invasion of South Korea
North Korea, under Kim Il-sung, had been secretly preparing to invade South Korea for several years…
The Soviet Union (USSR) supplied weaponry, trained the North Korean armed forces and its experienced WWII generals devised the plan for the invasion. When the Chinese communists under Mao Zedong won their war with the nationalists in 1949, Mao too was able to assist North Korea. He sent back 20,000 Koreans who fought with the Chinese communists.
Joseph Stalin was at first reluctant to support Kim’s proposed invasion because he feared a major war with the United States of America (USA) might be the outcome. By early 1950 he changed his opinion, partly because the USSR had successfully tested its first atomic bomb in 1949. This would have the effect of making the USA more cautious in any response to any USSR military move. Secondly, Stalin had reason to believe the USA would not support South Korea if North Korea invaded. In January 1950 the American Secretary of State Dean Acheson implied in a speech that South Korea was not a vital area of interest to USA. In addition, the USA House of Representatives rejected a bill to send financial aid to the south. Though the bill was passed a month later, this also suggested to Stalin that America did not care much about Korea and would stand aside if the north invaded the south.
In April 1950 Kim Il-sung visited Moscow, and Stalin finally agreed to support an invasion. The plan was, to take all of South Korea in three weeks, before American intervention, should it happen, could be organised.
In mid-June North Korean units were secretly moved into position close to the 38th parallel while North Korea’s insurgents operating deep in South Korea intensified their activity. To counter the insurgents the south had to maintain a portion of its fighting troops far from the border. On 25 June, at 4.40am the North Korean assault began.
The communists advance towards Pusan
At 0400 on 25 June 1950 130,000 North Korean (KPA) soldiers supported by 200 tanks, SU76 assault guns and 600 artillery guns, crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea…
The KPA’s objective was to destroy the South Korean (ROK) army, capture Seoul and ‘liberate’ South Korea. In response to the invasion, some ROK units such as the 17th Regiment, the 6th Division and the 8th Division put up a determined resistance. A sea-borne KPA commando raid on the port of Pusan was destroyed. In contrast, the ROK units defending Seoul were squandered in futile piecemeal attacks against much stronger KPA forces, many ROK units losing over half of their strength.
On 27 June Seoul was evacuated amidst scenes of chaos, and soon thereafter the first KPA units entered the city. Despite at times fanatical resistance from improvised ROK units, the KPA offensive could not be halted. Very quickly UN airpower (including 77 Squadron RAAF) intervened, although it would take time to develop its full potential. Desperate to support the beleaguered South Koreans the US scratched together a force from its garrison soldiers in Japan, Okinawa and Hawaii. The first of these to engage the KPA was a 540-man battle group called Task Force Smith which, on 5 July at Osan south of Seoul, was driven back in confusion, suffering heavy losses.
While ROK units continued to retreat and resist, more US troops were sent into combat. At Kum River on 14-16 July, US 34th Regiment, which had already suffered one defeat, was forced into disorderly retreat and the US 19th Regiment was shattered. At Taejon between 19-21 July the under-strength US 24th Division was also routed by KPA attacks. The next reinforcement to arrive through Pusan, the KPA objective, was US 1st Cavalry Division which was also unable to halt the KPA.
On 25 July a battalion of US 25th Regiment was destroyed in an ambush. Elsewhere, US and ROK forces did better. The US 27th Regiment, inflicted heavy losses on the KPA, and ROK 23rd Regiment, with UN air and naval support, defeated the 5th KPA Division assault on Pusan from the north. These successful actions managed to hold firm the UN defence line. Four weeks after the war began, Pusan, in the south-eastern corner of the country, remained the only part of South Korea which had not fallen to the communists.
How was Australia involved?
The Australian government during the Korean War was firmly anti-communist…
Sir Robert Menzies the Prime Minister championed the unsuccessful Anti-Communist Dissolution Bill of 1950; however, when the Korean War broke out, Menzies, who was Eurocentric in his world view, did not support Australia committing military forces to the conflict. Sir Percy Spender, the Minister for External Affairs, was of a very different persuasion. Spender saw that Australia’s vital security interests in Asia and her diplomatic relationship with the United States were directly affected by the situation in Korea. It was Spender who pushed for an Australian military commitment to both fight communist aggression in Korea and cement a firm alliance with the United States. Spender’s Korean War alliance with the United States would eventually evolve into the ANZUS treaty. Spender made the decision to commit Australian military forces to combat in Korea without consulting the Prime Minister who was overseas.
Menzies, when presented with the fait accompli of Australian military action in Korea, adapted quickly to political realities and publicly proclaimed his support. There was very little political or community opposition to involvement in the Korean War within Australia. The Opposition Labor Party agreed that communist aggression in Korea needed to be answered with firm resolve, and in the wider community the overwhelming majority of people supported the war effort. Only a very small fragment of the Australian population, composed mostly of local communists, opposed the Australian commitment.
The Korean War marked a point at which Australia recognised that it was in Asia and not elsewhere that its vital security interests lay. The War was also the catalyst for the formalisation of Australia’s military alliance with the United States in the ANZUS treaty.