Thursday 21 Oct 2021 | 07:33 | SYDNEY
Thursday 21 Oct 2021 | 07:33 | SYDNEY

Lessons from North Korea

27 July 2009 15:33

Today is the anniversary of the Korean War ceasefire agreement, signed at Panmunjom, Korea in 1953. What is perhaps most instructive about the Korean conflict and its relevance to military force modernisation and development, is its degree of discontinuity with what could have been expected.

An esteemed former colleague used to say — ‘the future is already fixed: we can’t hope to be right — but we can’t afford to be too far wrong!’ And in one sense, preparing military forces for the future is perennially attempting to achieve a balance between those events most likely to occur in the future, and those with the greatest consequence.

But for Korea, warning of the crisis was abrupt and the consequences were equally grave. The thirteen UN nations supporting had less than two weeks to scramble after the UN Security Council Resolutions 82 and 83 recommended member-state military assistance to the Republic of Korea, while the final death toll of over three million dead included nearly 3,000 non-US allied soldiers, of which 340 were Australian.

The diversity and provenance of these contributor nations is a telling reminder of how ‘national interest’ is not determined through geographic proximity — nor vestigial indebtedness to great powers — alone. 

Moreover, the UN had clearly been caught flat-footed, with many contingents from contributing nations slow to reach the peninsula: yet, given this issue had been an event ‘waiting to happen’ since the Second World War, one could argue that there had been a ‘strategic warning time’ of some five years!

The Korean conflict tells us that even if nations think they have the right balance for preparing between likely and grave-consequence events, national interests may dictate telescoped response times that mean ‘come as you are’ — even to events of grave consequence. My colleague’s axiom suddenly becomes clearer: and having agile force structures that can transition quickly across to roles and settings we haven’t envisaged, becomes similarly more appealing.

Lastly, it’s easy to forget that Panmunjom was just an armistice: the UN contributor nations still technically remain in a state of conflict with the DPRK…

Photo by Flickr user Locomota - M Cooper, used under a Creative Commons license.