In response to a further call from the United Nations, New Zealand agreed in July 1950 to provide a ground force in Korea. This force was similar to the New Zealand expeditionary forces of the world wars in being based on citizen-soldier volunteers, though it was much smaller. Kayforce, as it was called, the last such expeditionary force, was 1,100-strong, but eventually rose to 1,500 men. Its main components were a field artillery regiment and a transport squadron.
A great power contest
By the time the troops left New Zealand in December 1950, the war had been transformed. Following the In’chon success, the UN sought to unify Korea by force, ignoring Chinese threats of intervention if it attempted to do so. When UN forces pushed north, thousands of Chinese troops, designated Chinese people’s volunteers but in reality regular troops, entered Korea. In November they inflicted a major defeat on the UN forces, forcing them to retreat rapidly to the south. After this the conflict, which had begun as a civil war, became essentially a contest between two great powers – China and the United States.
A Commonwealth effort
Like New Zealand’s frigates, Kayforce served in a Commonwealth context within the UN Command, initially as part of a British Commonwealth infantry brigade. The New Zealanders helped to halt successive communist offensives designed to drive the UN Command out of Korea, performing well at Kap’yong in April 1951. Later, now in a Commonwealth division, they took part in a limited UN advance that carried the line to roughly the 38th parallel, where a stalemate developed.
The ANZAC spirit
There was a special connection between Australian and New Zealand units in Korea, although this was not always obvious to the outsider. One soldier commented that at meetings of the two contingents, ‘there are volleys of hard words, mud, water, old eggs or anything throwable. The other U.N. forces think we are crazy, but actually we are the only troops who have such a strong bond of comrade-ship and that’s our way of showing it.’1
During the last two years of the war, the UN forces manned the line – similar to a hilly Western Front – while negotiators, first at Kaesong then at Panmunjom, tried to thrash out an armistice. The negotiations deadlocked frequently, especially over the issue of the return of prisoners of war. Not until 27 July 1953 was the fighting brought to an end, though a peace settlement was not achieved – and had still not been in 2011. A decreasing number of New Zealand troops remained in Korea until 1957.
The Korean War was uncontroversial in New Zealand. Partly because it took place under UN auspices, partly because it imposed no serious demands on the population, and partly because of general acceptance of communist responsibility for the conflict, no significant opposition to New Zealand’s involvement developed. Indeed, once the war reached a stalemate, there was little interest in it – reflected in the fact that it is now often termed the ‘forgotten war’.
Wool boom and watersiders
Even so, the Korean War had an enormous economic impact on New Zealand. It precipitated a boom in wool prices that led to a stupendous influx of money into the country, leaving farmers more prosperous but unsettling the rest of society as inflation affected the cost of living. When an industrial dispute on the waterfront threatened this bonanza in 1951, the government declared a state of emergency and used the armed services to load cargo. A snap election followed, consolidating the position of the National government led by Sidney Holland.
The conflict had a profound impact on international politics. It heightened the Cold War division, induced a huge increase in US defence spending, and impelled the US to hasten a peace settlement with Japan. These developments allowed New Zealand and Australia to achieve their objective of securing a US commitment to their security. The three countries became allies when they signed the ANZUS treaty on 1 September 1951, one week before the conclusion of the Japanese Peace Treaty.
The Korean commitment from 1950 to 1957 cost the lives of 45 New Zealanders, 33 during the war itself.