In July 2013 the Department of Veterans’ Affairs conducted a commemorative mission to the Republic of Korea to mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice. A member of the Department who accompanied the mission reflects on the mission and the poignancy of accompanying veterans to the former battlefields.
It was a sad and eerie moment, as we honoured those who had lost their lives in the Korean War, a conflict that lasted three years and cost more than 330 Australian lives. We all stood silent, ministers and generals, members of the Australian Defence Force and the Army of the Republic of Korea and DVA staff, beside the 15 elderly veterans who remembered the events we were there to commemorate.
The notes of the Last Post echoed over the demilitarised zone towards Maryang San, the hill that was the site of a major Australian battle during the Korean War and now lies inside the disputed area between North Korea and South Korea. We were at an observation point, one of the northernmost South Korean outposts inside the demilitarised zone – as close as we could get to the site of the battle.
As the bugle’s call echoed off the hills around us, we stood at one of the most militarised places in the world, a flashpoint evidenced by the South Korean soldiers in bunkers around us, machine guns at their shoulders, all pointed north.
To the north we saw the denuded earth where North Koreans attempt to make a living in a land of famine and persecution. By contrast, south of us the people of the Republic of Korea live in one of the world’s most modernised countries, an economic powerhouse where people enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world.
That those in the south should recover from the devastation of war, to live in freedom and enjoy a modern lifestyle, is due to the efforts of the veterans who were standing with us that day, and more than 18,000 Australian service personnel who served during the Korean War.
The enormous gratitude of the South Koreans to the veterans was evident as they and thousands of veterans from other United Nations forces commemorated the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended the active fighting. There is no ‘forgotten war’ in South Korea. To be there with our quiet and humble veterans at that moment was one of the greatest privileges of working with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.