Australia and the two Koreas

The Korean Peninsula features prominently in Australia’s national interests

Daniel Fazio

International relations, Arts, culture & society | Australia, Asia, East Asia

22 June 2018

A look at history shows us why Australia will be paying close attention to the aftermath of the Trump-Kim summit, Daniel Fazio writes.

Amidst all the international attention devoted to the Trump-Kim summit, it is important for policymakers in Canberra to reflect on the significance of the Korean Peninsula for Australia.

The two Koreas have been central to Australian interests since the end of World War Two. A diffusion of tensions on the Korean Peninsula would strengthen Australian interests, whereas the possibility of a US-North Korean confrontation could potentially threaten those interests.

Japan annexed Korea in 1910, occupying it until 1945 when the Soviet Union and the US agreed to divide Korea at the 38th Parallel to prevent a power vacuum in the wake of Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War. The Cold War made this ‘temporary’ division permanent and North and South Korea emerged.

From 1945 to 1950, Australian and American geo-strategic interests converged and then aligned on the Korean Peninsula. The Americans came to see South Korea as a crucial ally in their policy to contain communism in the Asia-Pacific.

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Australia, wanting a free and united Korea as a bulwark against a resurgent Japan, initially opposed the American move to create the Republic of Korea (ROK). In the wake of the 1948 South Korean election and the Berlin Airlift, Australia recognised that communism, rather than Japan, was now the actual security threat.

Throughout 1948-49, as the communists gained the ascendancy in the Chinese Civil War, the US encouraged a reluctant Australia to build a diplomatic and economic relationship with the ROK. Leaders in Washington argued that a stable South Korea would help strengthen regional security, which was in Australia’s interests.

Australia regarded the US presence in the region as essential to its security. It saw engagement with the Americans in Korea as an opportunity to maintain direct contact with US officials and to perhaps influence US policy to benefit Australian interests. As a small power, Australia sought to be ‘seen’ by the Americans.

The changing regional geo-strategic balance was confirmed in October 1949 with the communist victory in China. The outbreak of the Korean War followed in June 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea. Australia answered the call from the US and the United Nations to defend the ROK, and was the first US ally to provide combat forces to fight alongside the Americans and South Koreans.

Since the end of World War Two, Australia believed a formal defence agreement with the US was its best security option. It involved itself in Korea because it saw an opportunity to engage with the Americans more deeply in pursuit of a security agreement. From Canberra’s perspective, defending the ROK was a secondary objective. What mattered was that Australia succeeded in making itself visible to the Americans at a time when the US needed allies.

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In just over a year, three crucial events – the communist victory in China, the outbreak of the Korean War, and the Chinese entry into the Korean conflict – resulted in a major re-assessment of American strategy in the Asia-Pacific.

Largely the brainchild of John Foster Dulles, a Republican foreign policy expert then working for the Truman Administration, the Americans devised an island chain defensive perimeter to contain communism in the region.

Dulles called this the ‘hub and spokes’. It meant that Australia, along with New Zealand, the Philippines and Japan (and also South Korea and Taiwan) were now all crucial to this American strategy.

This is why President Truman sent Dulles to Australia in February 1951. The Americans wanted Australia to accept a ‘soft’ Japanese peace treaty – an agreement which allowed the US to have Japan as a bulwark against communist expansion. The primary American objective, however, was to secure Australian participation in America’s regional anti-communist alliance system.

This was the context in which Dulles and Percy Spender, Australia’s Minister for External Affairs, negotiated the ANZUS Treaty in Canberra in February 1951.

Events on the Korean Peninsula were thus crucial to the making of the Australian-American alliance. The two Koreas, and especially the ROK, have since remained central to Australian strategic and economic interests. During the Vietnam War, a large contingent of South Korean troops fought alongside US, Australian, New Zealand and Thai forces.

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Today, most of Australia’s strongest and important trading partners, China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, are located in this region. Paralleling the events of 1949-50, the two Koreas are also crucial to the regional response to China’s increasingly assertive posture. This is why security and stability on the Korean Peninsula is essential to Australian geo-strategic and economic interests.

In turn, South Korea and Australia remain crucial to American regional strategy.

Australia and the US have similar and overlapping rather than identical interests on the Korean Peninsula. Australia has twice opened formal diplomatic relations with North Korea (in 1974 and 2000). In contrast, the US and North Korea have never had formal relations.

Some Australian officials and commentators expressed consternation in April when Admiral Harry Harris, the American Ambassador-Designate to Australia, was reassigned as Ambassador to South Korea. Seen from a broader perspective, this shows that although the ROK is higher than Australia in the American diplomatic and security pecking order, Australian and US geo-strategic interests continue to overlap on the Korean Peninsula.

Australia will be very closely watching the aftermath of the Trump-Kim summit. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula serve no one’s interests. Whether the summit will really herald the beginning of the normalisation of US-North Korean relations remains very problematic. Nevertheless, any diffusion of regional tensions would strengthen Australian geo-strategic and economic interests.

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