Korean War and India

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Nirupama Subramanian, April 2, 2023: The Indian Express

Outbreak of the Korean war

As the 1950 Korean War pitted Cold War opponents against each other, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made a huge diplomatic push to prevent an escalation into another world war, and for the parties to arrive at a quick ceasefire.

The efforts were only partially successful. Even so, India is counted among the countries that contributed to bringing the war to a close. New Delhi also discharged an important role in the months after the truce, as chair of a committee to repatriate prisoners of war.

In a 2013 essay, ‘Between the Blocs: India, the United Nations, and Ending the Korean War’, published in The Journal of Korean Studies, British historian Robert Barnes documented the efforts of Nehru and his envoys to bring the war to a “swift conclusion, prevent the UN from adopting a policy that might lead to its escalation, and to reconcile the divergent positions of the two superpower blocs”.

A couple of attempts by India to bring about a ceasefire ended in failure. However, its 1952 proposals for the exchange of prisoners enabled the July 1953 armistice agreement, which marks 70 years this year.

On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea. The peninsula had been divided at the end of World War II along the 38th Parallel, with Soviet and US forces occupying the North and South respectively. In 1948, after the two Koreas declared themselves separate countries, and held their own elections, the occupying forces departed. However, neither the North nor the South accepted the other and to this day, both claim the entire Korean peninsula and the islands on either side.

India at the UN

At the time of the invasion, India was among the six non-permanent members of the Security Council, and held its rotating presidency that month. Three resolutions on the war came up in quick succession.

  • The USSR was boycotting due to the UN’s refusal to replace Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China in the Security Council — and with no threat of a Soviet veto, the US moved the first resolution on the same day as the invasion, calling for a withdrawal of North troops from South territory.

New Delhi voted in favour, pleasantly surprising the US. Barnes wrote that India’s UN representative Benegal Rau and the UK representative persuaded the US to tone down the language of the resolution — calling the North’s action a “breach of peace” rather than an “act of aggression”.

  • A second US-sponsored resolution on June 27 asked UN members to offer “such assistance as may be necessary” to South Korea to repel the invasion. President Harry S Truman announced he would deploy the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan strait, and step up assistance to the French in Indo-China.

Rau initially refused to vote, but Nehru eventually accepted the resolution after the British High Commissioner in India conveyed there was “no room for neutrality when it came to aggression”.

  • India abstained on the third resolution on July 7, which gave US forces command over combined international forces under UN auspices. Not wanting to be seen as shirking an international call to duty by the UN, India sent the 60th Parachute Field Ambulance, which did outstanding work treating wounded soldiers.

Nehru’s view at this time was that giving the People’s Republic of China admission into the Security Council could provide resolution in Korea. The USSR returned to the Security Council at the end of August, and blocked further US resolutions, including one on sanctioning China.

Due to the Soviet vetoes, the US shifted the action to the UN General Assembly. Here India failed in an effort to block a US-British resolution for UN forces to cross into North Korea. As international troops crossed the 38th Parallel, Chinese forces entered the fray, and it seemed the crisis might spiral out of control.

Nehru’s proposal for a truce, and talks with the communist side on Korea and Taiwan after cessation of hostilities found traction at the UN. Rau was appointed to a three-member committee to come up with ceasefire proposals that were overwhelmingly approved by the General Assembly. But Beijing rejected the proposals, and in February 1951, a US resolution in the General Assembly for sanctioning China was adopted with a decisive majority. Stung by repeated failure, Nehru cooled off.

India and Prisoners of War

Months later, in 1952, when the Panmunjom talks for an armistice between the UN and the communist side (comprising Chinese and North Korean officials) unravelled over the fate of the PoWs, India got into the act again. The UN negotiators insisted that no PoW would be repatriated against his will — by their count, only 70,000 of 170,000 prisoners in their custody wanted to be sent back. The communists wanted a full exchange.

Nehru put the forceful V K Krishna Menon on the job of finding a way to break the impasse. Backed by Britain and Canada, Menon proposed a commission of four representatives, two from each bloc — Sweden, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, and Poland — plus a fifth country as “umpire”, that would take charge of all PoWs at war’s end. Those willing to be repatriated would be sent home immediately; the fate of the unwilling would be decided over the next six months. The UNGA adopted the proposal, but with the Soviet bloc opposing and China rejecting, it had to be shelved.

But when armistice negotiations resumed in April 1953, the proposal became the basis for the eventual solution on the PoWs. A Neutral Nations Repatriation Committee was set up with the same four member countries. India was selected to chair the committee; Nehru sent Lt Gen K S Thimayya for the job, and P N Haksar as his political adviser.

The committee would hold the PoWs for 90 days; the Korean conference would discuss the fate of the unrepatriated for 30 days; after this the prisoners would be either released or handed over to the UN General Assembly. Maj Gen S S P Thorat was appointed Commander of the Custodian Force India, which would take custody of over 22,000 PoWs who were unwilling to go back.

The Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953. As the world grapples to find an end to the war in Ukraine, President Vlodymyr Zelenskyy’s invitation to President Xi Jinping to visit his country has led to speculation that Beijing, after stitching up the Saudi-Iran peace deal, might be readying for a more high-profile peacemaking role.

Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has said he wants to launch a “peace club” of countries, including China and India, that can work together to find a way out in Ukraine. Any role India might want to play is likely to be informed by its experience in trying to end another war, 70 years ago.

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