Along parallel lines

25 June 2020 by Michael Kelly

Two Australians played a vital role in saving South Korea at the outbreak of the Korean War

In late June 1950, Major Stuart Peach and Squadron Leader Ronald Rankin were front page news. Sent to the Republic of Korea to report on growing tensions between North Korea and South Korea, they were thought to have been captured after Seoul fell to the invading North Korean army. While the men were missing, a report they had written was submitted to the United Nations Security Council.

The two Australians were working as military observers for the United Nations Commission on Korea (UNCOK), established in 1948 primarily to oversee elections to reunify Korea. By August, all hopes of a unified Korea had disappeared after elections to reunite the country failed. Instead, two states had been formed, the Republic of Korea in the south, supported by the United States of America, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north, supported by the Soviet Union.  

Major Stuart Peach (left) and Squadron Leader Ronald Rankin (centre) pose with correspondents  near Taegu, Korea in June 1950. AWM P00716.051

By January 1950 clashes along the 38th parallel were becoming more frequent and bitter. In response, the UNCOK established a commission to observe and report on developments which might lead to military conflict. Military observers were requested and Australia, although far from enthusiastic, agreed to send two military men.

Major Stuart Peach and Squadron Leader Ronald Rankin were experienced veterans of the Second World War. Peach had served as adjutant of the 2/30th Battalion, and spent most of the war as a prisoner of the Japanese after the fall of Singapore fell in February 1942. He had been in Japan with the occupation forces before being posted to UNCOK. He arrived in Korea in time to observe the South Korean elections which saw Syngman Rhee returned to power with a vastly reduced majority. Rankin, a former Australian rugby international and decorated fighter pilot who had seen action in Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific, had been working as a search and rescue pilot for the RAAF before he was ordered to Korea.

Australia’s United Nations Commission on Korea (UNCOK) observers, Mr Charles Coates, Squadron Leader Ronald Rankin and Major Stuart Peach during their tour of the 38th parallel. June 1950. P00716.018

Peach, Rankin and their interpreter, Major Koh, began a two–week survey of Republic of Korea Army (ROK–A) positions along the 38th parallel. Travelling east to west, they stopped at numerous outposts and interviewed South Korean soldiers and their United States Army advisors. Peach later stated “we were allowed to go where we wished and to visit headquarters, units and installations at various levels. Our appreciation was based on our observations and military experience, and we did not see any sign of preparation for an invasion or even a foray of any consequence across the parallel.” However, they were not allowed to cross the border to report on activities in North Korea.

Peach and Rankin returned to Seoul and submitted their report, which stated that the “South Korean army is organised entirely for defence and is in no condition to carry out an attack on a large scale against the forces of the north” to UNCOK headquarters. Less than 12 hours after the report was submitted, the North Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th parallel and began the drive south to reunify the country under the communist regime of Kim Il-sung.

When the UN Security Council met that day, UN Secretary General Trygve Lie began by reading the Peach–Rankin report to the other delegates. By the end of the meeting Resolution 82 had been passed, calling on North Korea to cease hostilities and withdraw to the 38th parallel.

The invasion continued, and the North Korean government announced that it had declared war on South Korea as a result of “South Korean puppet forces” invading the north on the orders of “the bandit traitor Syngman Rhee”. North Korean Premier Kim Il-sung blamed South Korea in a later broadcast, stating that the south “would have to take the consequences of the North Korean counterattacks”.

While South Korea was far from blameless in stoking tensions along the 38th parallel, the Peach–Rankin report had demonstrated that South Korea was incapable of launching such an offensive action.

South Korean forces were soon overwhelmed. As the fighting neared Seoul, rather than observing the North Korean withdrawal, Peach and Rankin were forced to make their own retreat. They made their way via Pusan to Japan with the civilian members of UNCOK and were reported safe. The UN, however, was displeased that UNCOK had left Korea and the mission was ordered to return.

The Peach–Rankin report was again tabled by the UN Security Council when it met to discuss the need for further action in Korea. The outcome was Resolution 83, which recommended that the United Nations “furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and restore international peace and security in the area”.

The resolution passed seven votes to one. While Yugoslavia was the only dissenting voice, the Soviet delegate, Jacob Malik, did not attend. The Soviet Union had been boycotting the Security Council since January 1950 over its refusal to grant Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China a permanent seat on the council, which at that time was held by Chiang Kai–shek’s Republic of China. Had Malik been in attendance he could have used his veto power, which would almost certainly have seen the fall of South Korea.

 

Michael Kelly is a historian at the Australian War Memorial and is co–editor (with Professor John Blaxland and Liam Brewin–Higgins) of In from the Cold: Reflections on Australia’s Korean War.