A decolonisation problem existed in Korea, which had been a Japanese colony since 1910. When Japan suddenly surrendered in August 1945, Soviet and American forces entered the Korean peninsula to take the surrender of Japanese forces. By agreement, the demarcation line between the zones of Soviet occupation (in the north) and US occupation (in the south) was the 38th parallel (line of latitude).
Subsequent attempts to form a unified Korean state were stymied by the developing Cold War. Both the US and USSR promoted regimes in their occupation zones that would ensure their continued influence in the peninsula. In the north, Kim Il Sung emerged as leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. He was widely regarded in the West as a Soviet puppet. In the south, the Republic of Korea was formed under UN auspices, though in the face of Soviet opposition. Syngman Rhee became President following an election endorsed by the UN.
North Korea attacks
Neither Korean state was reconciled to the division of the country. Both were determined on reunification – but outright war did not appear likely because their respective great-power mentors kept a tight rein on them. Early in 1950, however, Kim secured the support of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Chinese leader Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) for an invasion of the south. This onslaught, on 25 June 1950, initially appeared likely to succeed. Seoul fell immediately, and North Korean forces pushed south towards the port of Pusan (now Busan).
The communist leaders had assumed that the US would not have time to intervene or perhaps any interest in doing so. They were wrong. The US reacted with surprising speed, sending in troops from Japan within days. These helped halt the North Koreans at Taegu, 80 kilometres from Pusan.
Meanwhile the US achieved a diplomatic coup in the United Nations, persuading the Security Council to demand North Korea’s withdrawal and, when this was ignored, to call on members to help preserve South Korea. The absence of the Soviet Union, which had boycotted the council over the question of who should represent China (the communist regime or the Taiwan-based nationalist Kuomintang), made this action possible. It was the first time the Security Council was able to act in a peace enforcement role.
Early in July the council invited the US to create a UN Command (unified command structure for multinational troops). US General Douglas MacArthur, the Allied supreme commander in Japan, assumed command of the UN forces.
Hot and cold in Korea
In the early stages of Korean service, New Zealand’s navy frigates had to deal with few attacks from the enemy. However, they had to deal with rough weather, heavy seas and extremes of temperature. Stifling heat on their arrival in August was followed by a bitterly cold winter. Fortunately for the crews the Pukaki and Tutira were Loch-class frigates, with steam pipes carrying heat from the engine room to all parts of the ship.
New Zealand contributes
When the UN called for armed support, New Zealand responded immediately, one of 16 members to do so. It had long been a supporter of the UN – but the government also hoped that such action might assist New Zealand in obtaining a security commitment from the US. The traditional desire to stand alongside the UK, which had pledged support, was also influential.
Two Royal New Zealand Navy frigates, Pukaki and Tutira, left New Zealand on 3 July 1950. After reaching Japan a month later and being attached to a British squadron, they carried out escort operations. On 15 September they took part in MacArthur’s dramatic amphibious landing at In’chon, which quickly liberated Seoul and led to the collapse of the North Korean army. The New Zealand navy would station two frigates with the UN Command until 1954.