Australia's efforts to forge an alliance with the US were consolidated by a rapid and substantial commitment to the Korean War. But former ambassador Bill Paterson argues the current modest level of engagement on the Korean peninsula is an "opportunity forgone" to build security ties with both the US and Republic of Korea.
At the time of Australia’s decision to commit naval and air units to the Korean War on 29 June 1950, less than a week after North Korean forces pushed south of the 38th parallel and began the conflict, Australia was in the midst of negotiations with the US on what was to become the ANZUS Treaty.
Australia’s rapid decision to enter the war was directly influenced — even driven — by the perceived diplomatic and security benefits to be gained by supporting the US and shifting a sometimes reluctant US towards agreeing to the treaty.
For Australia, fearful of a revival of Japanese militarism, the ANZUS Treaty was quid pro quo for Australia’s acceptance of the peace treaty with Japan – but the Korean commitment demonstrated to the US that postwar Australia was prepared to put its limited military muscle behind US leadership.
There were other reasons why entry was considered to be in Australia’s national security interests. Mainland China had fallen to the Communist Party in 1949, and the Soviet Union was backing the North Korean communists. Fears that the Korean Peninsula, divided in 1945 along the 38th parallel, could be united under the Soviet-backed communists and, together with China, present a security threat to occupied Japan and more widely to the region fed Australian concerns.
The decision of the UN Security Council on 7 July 1950 to authorise the US to lead a command under the UN flag enabled Australia and other contributing parties to participate as part of a UN-authorised multilateral coalition. But Australia had already committed naval and air units from the end of June, prior to UN authorisation, not only as a response to aggression but as a clear demonstration of support for the US.
External Affairs Minister Percy Spender was a strong proponent of working with the US to develop a postwar Pacific security pact. On 26 July 1950, aware that the UK was about to commit ground forces to the Korean War, Spender moved rapidly to get the approval of a reluctant Prime Minister Robert Menzies (in transit overseas) and acting Prime Minister Arthur Fadden to announce — in advance of the UK — that Australia would commit ground troops to the war. Spender considered it critical that this be seen as Australia’s own decision, rather than one following from British entry, in order to advance Australia’s case for a treaty with the US.
It worked. Australia’s robust response built support in the Truman administration for entering the ANZUS Treaty. Both Menzies and Spender subsequently visited Washington and secured the support of President Harry Truman, and Congress, for the pact.
Australia has remained an active participant in the US-led UN Command since the armistice that ended the fighting in 1953, while some other initial members have fallen away. Participation has lent substance to our alliance commitment, offered opportunities to exercise with US and Korean forces in theatre, and demonstrated to the Republic of Korea (ROK) that Australia is committed to its integrity and to maintaining the fragile peace on the peninsula.
But perhaps the biggest benefit for Australia has been the opportunities, enabled by the closeness of the ANZUS alliance, to engage more closely with US forces. Since 2013, Australia has embedded an ADF officer with US Forces Korea, in addition to maintaining, and expanding, its presence in the UN Command, where Australia holds the position of Deputy Commander. Since 2010, the RAAF has also provided a group captain to serve as Commander of UN Command (Rear) based at Yokota air base in Japan. This has given Australia perspective and a deeper understanding of US contingency planning, and offered us the opportunity to contribute to it. For the US, Australia’s role has been interpreted as signalling a likely preparedness to commit, as part of a coalition, should North Korea renew large-scale military action against the South.
The opportunity to send forces to major exercises on the peninsula has further advanced the alliance link and built interoperability and experience in a theatre less familiar to current ADF personnel.
But the UN Command’s unique structure, and the separate US – Republic of Korea Combined Forces Command, has limited the opportunities to ‘trilateralise’ alliance engagement that includes the ROK armed forces. The ROK doesn’t see the ANZUS alliance as conferring an ongoing role for Australia on the Korean Peninsula in peacetime, other than through Australia’s membership of the UN Command. While Australia has a status of forces agreement with the US, we don’t have a separate one with the ROK, so Australian participation in exercises in Korea is conditioned by UN Command arrangements.
Through a program of visits to North Korea, enabled by a small humanitarian aid program, suspended by Australia in 2017, Australian officials were able to travel to substantial areas of the North. This enabled Australia to share with both the ROK and the US considerable first-hand information about conditions on the ground. But, since that program’s suspension, no such visits have occurred, and a valuable opportunity to contribute to the availability of better information for both our ANZUS partner and the ROK has been lost.
Australia’s Foreign Affairs and Trade Department and Defence Department have seemed comfortable with modest levels of engagement with the ROK and the US on the peninsula. This has been an opportunity forgone, dictated in part by attention being paid to our Middle East deployments. A more intensive and higher priority collaboration could have contributed to alliance interoperability and encouraged South Korea to view our participation more positively. The case for doing so is arguably now more compelling than ever.
Bill Paterson is a senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and former Australian ambassador to the Republic of Korea and the DPRK.
Banner image: South Korean sailors welcome the Australian Navy frigate HMAS Melbourne to Jeju, Republic of Korea - October 8, 2019. Credit: Australian Defence Force.
This article comes from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's new book, "ANZUS at 70: The past, present and future of the alliance", edited by Patrick Walters.
 The treaty of San Francisco, signed on 8 September 1951.