The unending truce: Ian McGibbon notes the 70th anniversary of the Korean War armistice.

Date01 July 2023
AuthorMcGibbon, Ian

On 27 July it will be 70 years since the armistice that brought fighting to a halt on the Korean peninsula. Signed by representatives of the United Nations Command, on one side, and the Chinese People's Volunteers and the North Korean government and army, on the other, it ended hostilities in a war that had ravaged Korea for more than three years. In that time, three attempts to reunify the peninsula by force--North Korean, UN and Chinese--had been thwarted; several million lives had been lost, mostly civilian; the world had teetered on the brink of atomic warfare; and much of Korea had been devastated as the struggle swept from one end of the peninsula to the other before settling in a stalemate roughly where it had begun. The 4-kilometre wide demilitarised zone that separated the two Koreas under the armistice terms left them with much the same amount of territory as before the war; based on military realities on the ground, it was a de facto boundary more defensible than the 38 th Parallel, the pre-war dividing line.

For many in the West there was frustration over the unsatisfactory outcome, so different to the armistices that had brought the recent Second World War to an end with the enemies' unconditional capitulation. New Zealand, which with fifteen other UN members had contributed forces to the UN Command, could draw some consolation from the fact that the United Nations had achieved its original objective--to preserve the Republic of Korea, the fate of which had hung in the balance in 1950 as North Korean forces swept across the 38th Parallel.

Despite the armistice, the prospects of achieving a solution to the underlying cause of the war--the division of Korea--did not seem good. It was, the Christchurch Press observed at the time, 'a negotiated truce with an undefeated enemy. Consequently, there is no question this time of dictating final terms, but of accepting what is feasible and honourable and leaves final settlement--if it can be achieved--to negotiation in the future'.

The Press's scepticism about the likelihood of a settlement was soon proved to be justified. The armistice agreement specified that a political conference was to be convened. This took place at Geneva in 1954 with New Zealand represented by foreign minister Clifton Webb, supported by diplomats Alister McIntosh and Frank Corner. Stalemate on the battlefield was matched by stalemate at the negotiating table as the Cold War put a clamp on any progress in achieving...

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