Anyone who has walked through the graves at the UN Memorial Cemetery in Busan will never forget the huge sacrifices made by British forces in the Korean War.
Yet, whether because of insufficient media coverage or post-World War II fatigue, many veterans returned to a country which did not acknowledge their service, and the Korean War soon became the “Forgotten War”.
In total, 82,000 British troops were sent to Korea, the second largest deployment from the 16 UN countries who fought to repel North Korea’s communist invasion. Despite there being 1,106 British casualties – more than in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined – a monument dedicated to their sacrifices was only erected in London three years ago, at the behest of the Korean government.
Although British participation never captured the public’s imagination on our shores, in South Korea it is deeply etched in the national psyche, with our veterans being treated as heroes there.
Today, UK-South Korea relations are moving through a brilliant new era. Bilateral trade is at record levels, with City powerhouses HSBC, Standard Chartered, Prudential, Barclays, Shell and BP all making major investments.
Britain exported £4.5bn of goods to South Korea in 2015 – amazingly an 111 per cent increase on 2011, when the successful EU-South Korea Free Trade Agreement came into force. Car sales alone reached 13,000 in 2014, up from 2,000 in 2011.
South Korea is the UK’s 11th largest trading partner and its third largest in Asia. The Trade Prospects Report from WPI Economics ranked South Korea as the UK’s first priority for a trade deal post-Brexit, due to the high mutual benefits, ease of achievability, and rapid speed at which it could be implemented. The “Made in Britain” tag is attractive to Korean consumers, not least because of the popular image cultivated by our cultural exports. Entertainment franchises such as Sherlock, Harry Potter, and the English Premier League are viewed by millions.
Likewise, in Britain it would be hard to find a household which doesn’t contain an LG, Samsung or Hyundai product, or a family which has never heard of the global pop phenomenon Psy and his viral hit “Gangnam Style” (a song so ubiquitously popular Ed Balls performed to it on Strictly Come Dancing).
But it is not just trade and money which forms the fabric of the unique ties between these two nations. The UK and South Korea share many similar values and often vote together at a UN level on critical global issues around climate change, cyber security, the fight against piracy, and peace-keeping.
More than six decades since the end of the Korean War, our security interests remain deep-rooted. The RAF recently took part in Operation Invincible Shield, a joint military exercise at Osan, a South Korean air base, that offered a united symbol of deterrence against the North’s missile programme. Joint ventures such as the £240m contract won by Augusta Westland to supply maritime helicopters to the Korean Navy shows that the UK’s commitment to South Korea’s defence remains resolute.
Perhaps most important of all is the blossoming number of people from both countries exploring the other’s culture. In 2014, 224,000 Koreans visited the UK, up 11 per cent on 2014. British visitors to Seoul number around 100,000 per year, and with the growing status of South Korea’s image in the UK this number is expected to grow rapidly. Over 1,000 young Koreans arrive in the UK each year through the Youth Mobility Scheme, giving them the opportunity to live and work in the UK for up to two years.
This growing exposure was highlighted in a recent survey conducted by the British Embassy in Seoul, which found that young Koreans between the ages of 18 and 30 identified Britain as their favourite overseas country – a positive sign for the years to come.
K-pop and Korean cuisine are booming in the UK and this is only the beginning. While not everyone wants to see more politicians dancing to Gangnam Style, it shows how far Korean culture has embedded itself within the UK.
Today, on the sixty-fourth anniversary of the end of the Korean War, we remember those heroes who gave their lives, forging lasting ties which will continue to grow and flourish. As Britain charts a new way forward after Brexit, few countries will be as important to our future prosperity as South Korea.