70 years after the outbreak of a “forgotten war”, how was the UK involved?
On 25 June 1950, North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel of northern latitude into South Korea. This line had been used five years earlier to delineate American and Soviet zones of influence on the Korean peninsula following Japan’s defeat in the second world war.
The North Korean action precipitated a three-year conflict with international dimensions. Sometimes described as the first “hot war” of the cold war, the Korean war drew in a United Nations-mandated multinational force in response to the North’s incursion. The UK participated in the conflict through its contribution to this UN force. China entered the conflict later that year on the opposing side.
By the time an armistice was signed in 1953, the Korean war had claimed at least 2.5 million lives. For all the loss of life, however, hostilities ceased along a frontier that lay not far from the border in place at the start of the conflict. The border separating North and South Korea agreed in 1953 remains to this day.
The armistice line now rests within an area known as the demilitarised zone (DMZ)—one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world. The armistice has not yet been replaced with a peace agreement, despite recent moves to this end.
North and South Korea
The Korean peninsula was divided in two after the defeat of Japan in 1945. After negotiations on reunification failed, in 1948 separate governments were formed in the Soviet and American-administered zones. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was established in the north. The Republic of Korea (ROK) was established in the south. Both governments claimed jurisdiction over Korean territory.
Today, the DPRK and ROK are popularly known as North and South Korea. Both countries joined the UN in 1991. The UK maintains diplomatic relations with both states.
How was Parliament kept informed at the time?
The day after the North Korean action, Winston Churchill, then leader of the opposition, asked a private notice question in the House of Commons on the situation in Korea. Prime Minister Clement Attlee responded as follows:
Reports were received yesterday indicating that forces from North Korea had crossed the 38th parallel at a number of points, in the course of the invasion of the Korean Republic. At the request of the Government of the United States of America an emergency meeting of the [UN] security council was held, at which a resolution was passed to the effect that the action of the forces of North Korea constituted a breach of the peace. The resolution called for the immediate cessation of hostilities, and called upon the authorities of North Korea to withdraw forthwith their armed forces to the 38th parallel.
He added that the Government had voted in favour of the resolution. Indeed, it had been supported by all members of the security council except Yugoslavia (which abstained) and the USSR (which was boycotting the security council at the time).
On 27 June 1950, Mr Attlee again updated the House of Commons in the context of North Korean forces having disregarded the earlier security council resolution. He stated:
[…] the United Kingdom representative on the security council has been authorised to support, at today’s meeting of the security council, a resolution which I understand is being introduced by the United States representative and which recommends that the Members of the United Nations furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack.
The situation is of undoubted gravity, but I am certain that there will be no disagreement, after our bitter experiences in the past 35 years, that the salvation of all is dependent on prompt and effective measures to arrest aggression wherever it may occur, using for this purpose the international machinery which the peace-loving nations have set up for this very purpose.
Mr Attlee’s statement was repeated in the House of Lords by Viscount Addison, then Leader of the House. Viscount Swinton, speaking on behalf of the Conservative benches, responded that “on the grave matters on which he has spoken to us now we are all one”.
Mr Attlee made another statement on 28 June 1950 announcing the decision to make British naval forces available to the United States to operate on behalf of the UN. On 5 July, the House of Commons agreed a motion in support of the Government’s actions without division. British ground troops arrived in the theatre the following month.
The war was addressed in further questions, statements and debates in both Houses until the cessation of hostilities in July 1953.
Over 81,000 British service personnel were deployed during the Korean war. This was the second largest international contribution after that of the United States in support of the UN response.
Of this number, over 1,100 were killed in action, thousands were injured and 1,060 suffered as prisoners of war. In 2018, the Government stated that it believed the bodies of 255 of those service personnel who died were still in North Korea.
The UK has no treaty obligations to come to the defence of South Korea if hostilities on the peninsula resume. However, the UK continues to be a member of the United Nations Command that maintains the armistice agreement. The UK’s defence attaché in Seoul is the UK member of the Military Armistice Commission, which supervises the implementation of the agreement and settles any violations through negotiations.
The Library holds several hard copy volumes on the Korean war that can be borrowed when physical services resume. In the meantime, ask the Library about how to access ebooks on this or any other subject, including on North and South Korea and/or the situation in the wider region today.
Image by Chris McKenna from Wikimedia.