On 2 May a new memorial commemorating Australians who served in the Korean War of 1950-53 was opened amid great fanfare at Quarry Park, in the west Melbourne suburb of Footscray. With music provided by the Royal Australian Navy Band, the unveiling ceremony was performed jointly by the South Korean and Victorian ministers for Veterans Affairs, in front of an assembly of Korean and local officials, representatives of veterans and community groups, and the memorial’s organisers—the Melbourne Korean War Memorial Committee (MKWMC).
South Korean Minister for Patriots & Veterans Affairs Woo-jin Pi and Victorian minister Robin Scott, MLA jointly unveil Melbourne’s new Korean War Memorial.
When planning for the memorial commenced three and a half years ago, there were high hopes that it would not only ‘honour the service and noble sacrifices of Australians in defence of freedom and democracy on the Korean Peninsula’, but also ‘further strengthen the long-standing and deep friendship between the Republic of Korea and Australia’. This was despite the fact that there were already three other Korean War memorials in Australia, that the MKWMC knew about, at Canberra, Sydney and the Gold Coast. Actually, there is a fourth memorial, already located in Victoria, which has sat—little-known and out of the way—in Rippleside Park at North Geelong since 1996.
Geelong’s Korean War Memorial in Rippleside Park
Back in January 2016, when the MKWMC was set up, the goal was to raise $250,000 from Koreans residing in Victoria, Victorians and organizations in Victoria; and another $250,000 from the government of South Korea. The committee was also seeking a land donation from a benefactor (potentially the Victorian government), for a site at the Shrine of Remembrance or adjacent gardens. Design and construction was to be awarded by competitive tender, with completion planned by June 2017. A website was created by the MKWMC to ‘transparently record this committee’s activities, including fundraising history and promotions. . . In the first week of every month, our Committee will advertise and update the progress on our website’ as well as through other media and organisations.
Unfortunately, none of these good intentions were implemented or realised. By the time the new memorial was finally unveiled this month, all transparency in the MKWMC’s actions and conduct had disappeared long ago, and the project’s completion has driven a wedge through Melbourne’s Korean community leaving many of its members angry, frustrated and bitterly disappointed—but often too fearful to speak out further, following a campaign of intimidation waged against dissenters.
Most complaints have centred on a former South Korean consul-general, Mr Hongju Jo, who has since returned to Seoul. Although only nominally Patron of the memorial project, Mr Jo is accused of stacking the MKWMC with friends he appointed, then running the Committee (as President) in an entirely authoritarian and unaccountable fashion without regard to the MKWMC’s constitution or legal obligations, especially after it was incorporated under Australian law to enable it to act as a deductible gift recipient.
More serious are accusations about the manner in which decisions were made regarding the memorial’s site, design and construction. Donors who believed the memorial would be constructed in a central location with good public transport access, like Kings Domain or the Botanic Gardens, were dismayed to learn that the site had been shifted to Footscray—without prior consultation or notification—purely to suit Mr Jo’s preferences. No offer to return donations was made. And instead of the design and construction process being competitive, the contract was simply awarded to Swinburne University—apparently as a result of a conflict of interest situation (the secretary of MKWMC being an employee of that institution).
Bad enough though all this has been, even more disturbing has been the inaction of Victorian government agencies who have responsibility for upholding the state’s laws, particularly given that $100,000 of taxpayers’ money was also involved—and even the regulatory authorities responsible for investigating instances of negligence of agencies in the performance of their roles. It appears that no-one wants to know what has gone on in this instance, with all parties involved simply turning their backs on the processes meant to apply.
All of which now begs the question of what has actually been achieved with the memorial now unveiled. There is a significant difference between a memorial in a central and accessible locality like Kings Domain or the Botanic Gardens, and one placed on the fringes of Maribyrnong, seven kilometres from the city centre … remote from public transport, parking, toilet facilities, and situated at the top of a steep hill. One can only wonder how many Victorians will ever come across a memorial stuck in a place that was once a quarry, and then a landfill site accepting the city’s garbage until 1988.
How will that help strengthen the bonds of friendship between the Republic of Korea and Australia?