An Alternate Course in Australian Foreign Policy: Korea 1943-1950

By Dutton, David | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

An Alternate Course in Australian Foreign Policy: Korea 1943-1950


Dutton, David, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


Australia's role in Korea between the end of the Second World War and the outbreak of the Korean War has received little historical notice. The Official Historian of Australia's involvement in the Korean War, Robert O'Neill, has offered only cursory remarks on the period though Gavan McCormack, a critic of O'Neill, has examined the period in some detail.(1) The omission of Australia's interest in Korea, and its involvement in events there through the United Nations (UN) and its commissions in Korea, is curious given Korea's misfortune as a site of conflict between the United States (US) and United Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) during the onset of the Cold War. Evatt's enthusiasm for the UN as a means of resolving international conflicts, and his resistance to the drift in super-power relations, render the omission even more prominent This turbulent period which led to a calamitous war, to which Australia was party, has apparently not inspired historical interest Yet Australia took a considerable part in Korea throughout the period, and from 1947 was among the most prominent states, the US and USSR aside, involved in events there.

This article examines the substance of Australian foreign policy during this neglected period, and argues that until the outbreak of war Australia sought to introduce liberal democratic principles and institutions, and to prevent violence and division. While compromised in part in late 1948, the policy was abandoned and tacitly repudiated by the decision to support the Seoul Government with military force in 1950. The defeated policy can be understood as an alternate course" in Australian foreign policy, which rejected the pressures of the Cold War on both international and domestic fronts. It is argued here that this "alternate course!' is representative of Australia's wider foreign policy during the period, and elucidates Australia's foreign policy towards Asia, and its relations with die US. It draws attention to ideological differences in Australia which produced a sudden and profound realignment of foreign policy at the outbreak of The Korean War.

A Voice in Affairs

Australia first expressed an interest in Korea in 1943 because of Korea's position as a Japanese colony whose fate would be determined in the postwar settlement. As Australia had little knowledge of Korea its policy was guided by two wider imperatives, both of which animated the foreign policy of Labor's Minister for External Affairs, H. V. Evatt. The first was Evatt's determination for Australia to have a voice in regional affairs and be an influential power in the region. The second was his cherished idea of trusteeship. Plans for trusteeship emanated from the American president, Franklin Roosevelt, and his vision of the postwar world. Roosevelt's conception of trusteeship was shared by many people in Australia including Evatt and a section of his department. It was premised on the paternalistic belief that colonised peoples were unable to administer their own affairs. Trusteeship by a Western power or powers would provide the colonised people with the opportunity to develop their capacities for self-government while ensuring security and access to markets and resources for the trustee. It aimed to reform the exploitative dimension of colonialism.

Korea was discussed at the 1943 Cairo conference between the US, Britain and China, from which emerged a brief statement on Allied war aims in the Pacific later endorsed by the USSR. In regard to Korea the statement simply set forth the principle "that in due course Korea shall become free and independent'. Reflecting American plans for a trusteeship of up to twenty years, Roosevelt had altered this passage from: "at the earliest possible moment Korea shall become free and independent'. At Yalta, Stalin specifically approved the idea of a Korean trusteeship but urged that the period be as short as possible.(2) In the minds of American planners trusteeship assumed a second aim. …

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