When US President Donald Trump met North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on 12 June, there was great speculation that this historic summit could result in an official end to the Korean War of 1950-53. Sixty-five years after the armistice which ended that conflict, the formal details of a peace treaty still remain elusive, hence the rise in hopes that this step could finally be within grasp and a semblance of peace and stability restored to the troubled peninsula.
Australia would have particular reason to welcome such an outcome, since it was among the 17 members of the United Nations Organisation which contributed combat forces to the conflict. As with the other combatants, Australia suffered a large number of casualties, including 340 dead. Among these were 43 personnel who—to this day—are recorded as missing in action, because their remains were never recovered.
Following the later Vietnam conflict (1964-1973), Australia was in a not dissimiliar position. After the withdrawal of combat forces in 1971-72, the Defence Department was unable to account for six personnel (four Army, two Air Force) who were almost certainly killed while on service, but who could not be accorded a proper burial. Incredibly, however, in 2007-2009 the remains of all six were finally located and repatriated, bringing to an end this sad legacy of conflict.
Given the separation of time since the end of the Korean War, the hopes of achieving a similar outcome may seem more remote. At the armistice Australia remained unable to account for 23 Army personnel, plus 18 from the Royal Australian Air Force and two from the Royal Australian Navy. Particularly perplexing were the men of the RAAF and RAN—all of them aviators who had been shot down or crashed in North Korea, or simply failed to return from sorties over enemy territory, never to be heard of again.
Missing in action (left to right): Pilot Officer Don Ellis, first RAAF pilot reported missing, Dec. 1950; Sub-Lieut. Ron Coleman, lost on a RAN combat air patrol over the Yellow Sea, Jan. 1952; Squadron Leader Don Hillier, most senior RAAF MIA, lost near Hanoori, North Korea, Mar. 1953.
Not just Australia but Britain has an equal interest in seeking a resolution of the missing-in-action issue. While Britain provided ground combat forces to the UN Command in Korea, it separately sent a number of pilots to join the sole Australian air combat unit engaged in the conflict. This was No 77 Squadron of the RAAF, which entered the war flying American propellor-driven P-51 Mustang fighters but after the first year of fighting re-equipped with British Meteor jets.
As a result of this arrangement, the Royal Air Force has four pilots also listed as missing in action while serving with 77 Squadron, RAAF, who all disappeared during the first half of 1953. Presumably the British government would be equally interested in obtaining a final reckoning of its combat losses from the Korean conflict. Also the Australian Navy, which lost two pilots of No. 805 Squadron operating from the RAN carrier Sydney in late 1951 and early 1952; one of whom was definitely known to have been shot down over North Korea.
Although descendants alive today to mourn United Nations Command losses are more likely to be children and grand-children of serving members, rather than parents and siblings, Australia still has an obligation to repatriate the remains of its personnel recorded as ‘missing in action’. This means it continues to have a keen interest in the outcome of negotiations to settle outstanding issues from the Korean conflict.
Whether Australia can enter into discussions with North Korea seeking return of its war dead will largely depend on progress that the U.S. is able to make to repatriate remains of the 5,300 of its soldiers still missing after the Korea conflict. Latest news from mid-July reports ‘productive’ discussions at working level meetings, with talk of remains already collected being transferred shortly, and for searches for further remains to be resumed in the near future.