Stephen Hoadley cautions New Zealanders to take into account the security risks – and the economic opportunities – presented by the fragile inter-Korean armistice, and to be aware of the shifting power balances of the East Asian region
The guns are stilled … for now. But seven decades ago one of the 20th Century’s bloodiest wars was raging, North Korea against South Korea. This Tuesday is the 68th anniversary of the Korean Armistice that brought the fighting to an uneasy pause; it’s an opportunity for New Zealanders to reflect on their contribution to this conflict … and their sacrifice.
The need for that contribution is ongoing: a peace treaty between the antagonists is yet to be concluded, and is not even under negotiation. TV documentaries call this ‘the forgotten war’. It pitted the forces of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea against those of the Republic of Korea. As is often the case in civil wars, it divided neighbourhoods and families of this otherwise ethnically homogeneous people. It killed an estimated three million Koreans on both sides, a higher per capita mortality than either World War I or World War II.
Neither side fought alone. This was the first of many 20th century ‘proxy wars’. North Korea was armed and supplied by the Soviet Union. When the north was near defeat, it was saved by a surge of Chinese troops that pushed the battle line from the Yalu River back to the 38th parallel. Where the fighting stopped is now marked by the current Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
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South Korea’s forces were assisted by the United Nations Military Command led by the United States, in which New Zealand and Australia fought. Thirty-three New Zealanders gave their lives, and many more suffered physically or mentally, to protect South Korea from the North’s unprovoked attack in June 1950 and the following three years of war.
What did the defence of the south accomplish? It is too much to answer ‘peace’, for technically the war continues. But one may marvel at what collective security and relative stability have done for South Korea. This nation of 51 million has lifted itself from an agricultural economy to become one of the world’s top 10 industrial giants. Korean conglomerates such as Hyundai, Kia, Samsung, Kumho and Lotte not only provide high-tech goods to middle-class Korean consumers but also export profitably to global markets, including ours. Living standards are high and Covid-19 has been managed efficiently.
Southern generals ruled by coup and decree in the first post-war decades. But they have been superseded by popularly elected civilian leaders presiding over peacefully competing mass parties and lively public debate facilitated by a free media. South Korea has become a model democracy.
North Korea has not fared so well. A succession of dictators, Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un, grandfather, father, and son, backed by a rigid communist party and a loyal military, have ruled for seven decades. The economy is strictly collectivised and controlled. It is dependent on food and oil from China. Its meagre income derives from criminal transactions in drugs, counterfeit and laundered money, and nuclear and missile technology. Remittances from North Koreans working in Russia under near-slave conditions, and smuggling, keep the regime barely solvent. US and UN sanctions have further retarded economic growth. Food shortages and malnutrition are endemic among the 20 million northerners. Famine and starvation of millions occurred in the 1990s, and are looming again this year.
Despite civilian need, North Korea is per capita the most militarised nation on earth. Its massive military force threatens South Korea with not only tank attack and artillery and missile fire on Seoul but also with long range missiles, soon to be armed with nuclear weapons. It conducts probing attacks via cross-border sniper shots, infiltration and tunnels and in 2010 sank a South Korean Navy corvette and shelled a South Korean island village.
How does New Zealand fit into this tense standoff? In 2001 then Minister of Foreign Affairs Phil Goff extended New Zealand’s diplomatic recognition to North Korea. The aim was to encourage North-South dialogue and an eventual political reconciliation. Northern hostility and Wellington parsimony prevented establishment of a New Zealand diplomatic post in Pyongyang. New Zealand hosts, and sends, occasional delegations, but relations with North Korea remain intermittent and cool.
In contrast, New Zealand enjoys a warm diplomatic, economic, and security relationship with the south. South Korea has emerged as New Zealand’s fifth most valuable trade partner, behind China, Australia, US, and Japan, displacing even Great Britain. The embassy in Seoul is one of New Zealand’s larger posts and is cross-accredited to North Korea. And the NZ Defence Force contributes a DMZ monitoring team to the UN Military Armistice Commission that works with the Korean and US combat commands. Defence exchanges and visits are routine. The NZ Navy ships Endeavour and Aotearoa were built in South Korean shipyards.
Strategic stability prevails on the Korean peninsula at present. But China’s military initiatives, Japan’s defence enhancements in response, and Kim’s relentless pursuit of nuclear-capable missile forces threaten the uneasy balance. The US has recommitted to the defence of Japan and South Korea and the British are planning to deploy Royal Navy ships to the region. The Quad security consultative group (US, Japan, Australia, India) is urging South Korea to join.
But the potential for military impulsiveness, miscalculation, and escalation in the Korean region remains. New Zealand will continue to counsel moderation and diplomacy in the context of a rules-based international order. I believe we should not formally join The Quad but rather discreetly and informally work with it, and to continue to support South Korea.
In sum, New Zealanders are cautioned to take account of the security risks as well as the economic opportunities presented by the fragile inter-Korean armistice, and to be aware of the shifting power balances of the East Asian region. Let this war be ‘forgotten’ no longer.