KIMS Periscope

KIMS Periscope No. 348

Small State Naval Diplomacy in the Korean War : Denmark and the MS Jutlandia

the Royal Danish Defence College Military analyst
Captain Anders Puck Nielsen

Recently there has been an increasing interest in the topic of naval diplomacy. When James Cable first made the term gunboat diplomacy famous in the 1970s, focus was exclusively on how naval forces could be used against an opponent. The idea was that naval forces could be used as a diplomatic tool to demonstrate resolve and to intimidate the adversary into submission. However, since then there has been an increasing academic interest in how naval forces can also serve more positive diplomatic purposes and be used to strengthen the bond between allies.

The Danish contribution to the Korean War serves as a good example of such naval diplomacy directed toward friends and allies. Denmark participated with a hospital ship, Jutlandia, and the analysis of the decision-making processes shows how the Danish politicians intentionally designed the operational contribution to achieve specific diplomatic effects. In this article I explain how the Danish politicians concluded that the deployment of a hospital ship was the best solution for Denmark, and how they tried to balance different diplomatic signals that this deployment would send to various stakeholders.

But the decision of sending a hospital ship was not only based on a desire to achieve specific diplomatic results. It was also assessed to be the solution where Denmark could get away with spending as few resources as possible and still satisfy the expectations of the other stakeholders. There is in other words also a question of cost efficiency in naval diplomacy, where a maritime contribution can be used by states to achieve cheaper results than they could have done with other means. This perspective also opens for a discussion about why states contribute to international operations in the first place. When Jutlandia was deployed to Korea, it was only to a limited extent because the Danish politicians wanted to make a difference in the war. Rather, the primary concern was how to best strengthen their own alliances in Europe and avoid negative spillover effects from the war into Europe.


A humanitarian signal

When the Korean War broke out in 1950, the Danish politicians found themselves with a dilemma. German occupation had ended only five years earlier, and Denmark was on the frontline of the new Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union. NATO had been established in 1949, but by June of 1950 it was still mostly a paper concept. The military structures had yet not been established, and it was unclear to what extent Denmark could count on the security guarantees from NATO.

It was clear for the Danish politicians that the primary security guarantor for Denmark would have to be the United States, and it was therefore a priority to be seen as a valuable partner by the American politicians. Officially the international mission in Korea was established within the framework of the United Nations, but that had only come about because the Soviet Union at the time was boycotting the meetings in the UN Security Council. So, despite being organized under the UN umbrella, the missions were clearly an American project. When Denmark was asked by the United Nations to contribute, there was therefore a strong desire to deliver something that would look impressive in Washington.

However, there was also a pressure in the opposite direction from the Soviet Union. The Danish politicians were unsure how Stalin would react if Denmark participated militarily in a war against their communist partners in North Korea, or if the war could develop into a global conflict that also played out on the European continent. In other words, the Danish politicians found themselves in a catch 22 situation. On the one hand they had to contribute to the international mission in Korea to satisfy the American politicians who guaranteed the security of Denmark against Soviet aggression. On the other hand, a Danish contribution to the international mission could increase the risk of Soviet aggression against Denmark.

The decision from the Danish government was that Denmark would contribute to the mission but only with humanitarian aid. This was intended as a distinctly nonaggressive diplomatic signal to the Soviet Union. Over the summer of 1950 an intense political process took place to figure out what the Danish contribution would be in practice.


The money question

The Danish politicians were generally satisfied to see that the international community reacted to defend South Korea, which had been attacked by its neighbor. They saw this as an example that the United Nations functioned as intended as a security framework for the post World War II international system. This gave them optimism that the international community would also be there for Denmark, if they were to find themselves in a similar situation. However, they did not find it reasonable that a country in Denmark’s position should make a big contribution to the effort. Denmark itself was receiving international aid as part of the Marshall Plan, and the reconstruction of the military after German occupation was still in its early phases.

It therefore became a priority to find a way to contribute that would not only meet the diplomatic goals but would also be cost efficient. Or in other words, the Danish politicians wanted to find the cheapest way possible to satisfy the Americans. This led to an interesting positional game, where the Danish politicians tried to measure their response against other European countries. The goal was to offer just enough to look generous and be seen as a valuable partner by the Americans, but at the same time avoiding that the European countries engaged in an internal competition of overbidding each other.

The Danish politicians therefore sought to find a solution where Denmark, Norway, and Sweden could offer a combined contribution as a way to keep the costs down. However, Norway and Sweden both responded directly to the call from the United Nations, so Denmark had to come up with its own solution.

Over the summer Denmark came up with several offers of ways to support the international mission. The first offer was to provide medicine and some medical equipment, but it was immediately clear from the American response that this was insufficient. Denmark would have to come up with something bigger if they wanted to achieve the diplomatic goal of being seen as a valuable partner by the United States. The next suggestion from the Danish politicians was that Denmark would provide an ambulance that would be manned with a crew from the Danish Red Cross organization.

However, once again this was not enough for the American organizers of the mission.

The Americans made it clear that Denmark would have to provide an entire military field hospital, or else they were not interested.

The Danish politicians were not willing to provide a military field hospital. First, they did not feel that Denmark had the necessary resources. Denmark only had one military field hospital, and they were not willing to deploy the entire capacity as far away as Korea. And second, they felt that deploying a military field hospital would violate the decision they had made not to provide direct military assistance. Doing so would compromise the diplomatic signal that they wanted to send to the Soviet Union.

The offer to send a hospital ship turned out to be an elegant solution. A ship is an independent unit that can bring a complete capacity to an operations area. This meant that Denmark would have much more freedom to finetune the posture to send the desired diplomatic messages to the various stakeholders. If the ship could fulfill its operational tasks within the framework of the larger naval force, the American leadership was largely indifferent about questions like manning, domestic organizational affiliation, and the color of the hull. Jutlandia was therefore organized as a mission under the Danish Red Cross organization, it was painted in white with a Red Cross on the side, and it had an almost entirely civilian crew. Only the mission commander had a military rank, so he would be able to take part in meetings with his American counterparts on an equal basis.

By sending a hospital ship the Danish politicians had found a solution that met all the diplomatic goals. It was seen by the Americans as a valuable contribution, but at the same time It also sent the right message to the Soviet Union by being a primarily humanitarian contribution under the umbrella of the civilian Danish Red Cross organization.


The power of naval diplomacy

It is debatable whether a hospital ship turned out to be a cheap solution. Over the three years that Jutlandia was active in Korea, there were many discussions about whether it was too expensive, and if a ceasefire was so close that it was time to think about ending the operations. But compared to a direct military contribution the ship was probably not expensive, and Denmark got the unique benefits that a ship can provide in terms of visibility and flexibility. This was undoubtedly one of the reasons why Denmark managed to get through the Korean War without having to give in to American pressure to send military assistance.

In two other areas it was also evident that ships are a particular type of platform with exceptional symbolic value. Strikingly, neither the Danish nor the South Korean population had been particularly important for the decision to deploy a hospital ship to the international mission. But for both these groups Jutlandia became a popular and lasting symbol of the relationship between the countries and the efforts to alleviate the horrors of war. In total more than 6000 Korean soldiers and civilians received treatments on Jutlandia including president Syngman Rhee, who used the ship’s dental clinic. In March of 2001, the South Korean government invited veterans from Jutlandia and their families to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first arrival of the ship to Korea. This shows something about the longevity of the memory of the hospital ship.

In the Danish population the symbolic value of the ship was perhaps even stronger. In the 1980s the name Jutlandia was immortalized in a famous pop song, which most Danes would be able to sing along with even today. The ship has also given name to things like an apartment building in Copenhagen, a variety of potatoes, and a company that produces doors, and in connection with international crises it has been suggested that Denmark should repeat the success and organize a Jutlandia II mission. It seems fair to assume that the memory of the Danish contribution in the Korean War would have been shorter if Denmark had something other than a ship. But the unique characteristics of ships give them the symbolic value to linger in the memories of people for generations.

The Danish contribution in the Korean War therefore illustrates the power of naval diplomacy.

In the immediate situation, the deployment of a hospital ship solved a range of diplomatic challenges for the Danish government and allowed them to balance their messaging to satisfy both the United States and the Soviet Union. And in a longer timeframe it created a bond between Denmark and South Korea that lasted much longer than the politicians at the time could have imagined.

Bowers, I. (Ed.). (2024). Coalition Navies during the Korean War: Understanding Combined Naval Operations (1st ed.). Routledge.

  • The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of KIMS. 

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