UN-less Command: The US-run body destabilizing peace, sovereignty for the Korean Peninsula

Posted on : 2023-11-27 16:44 KST Modified on : 2023-11-27 16:44 KST
The UN Command is maintained by sacrificing peace on the Korean Peninsula and South Korea’s military sovereignty
Defense Minister Shin Won-sik of South Korea greets the gathering of defense chiefs from UN Command member states held at the Ministry of National Defense in Seoul’s Yongsan District on Nov. 14. (pool photo)
Defense Minister Shin Won-sik of South Korea greets the gathering of defense chiefs from UN Command member states held at the Ministry of National Defense in Seoul’s Yongsan District on Nov. 14. (pool photo)

Two international meetings directly linked to the peace and security of the Korean Peninsula were convened this month. One was South Korea’s meeting with the defense chiefs of UN Command member states, which occurred on Nov. 14, the day after the annual South Korea–US Security Consultative Meeting.

The South Korea-UNC meeting was attended by the defense ministers of South Korea and the United States, along with representatives from the other 16 member nations, predominantly comprising their ambassadors to Seoul. The meeting resulted in the release of a joint statement not only acknowledging the UNC’s significant contributions to upholding the armistice regime since the Korean War but also committing to bolstering its role and capabilities moving forward.

The second was the Nov. 15 US-China summit, which took place in San Francisco on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meeting.

There, the two leaders agreed to restore military communication channels that had been cut off for years amid a relationship strained by economic and security issues. Specifically, they agreed to institutionalize military-to-military communication, including high-level communication between defense and military leaders of the two countries.

This is expected to help manage complicated and sensitive issues such as rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, export controls and trade conflicts, and the nuclear arms race.

On the face of it, the South Korea-UNC meeting and the US-China summit appear contradictory in terms of military security. Strengthening the role of the UNC could be interpreted as targeting not only North Korea, but also China, which could undermine the US-China summit’s goal of reducing tensions between the two countries.

In fact, China criticized the South Korea-UNC meeting, with the spokesperson for its Foreign Ministry saying that the UNC “stokes confrontation and creates tensions,” and that “the move only aggravates the situation on the peninsula.”

But such contradictory behavior is common in the world of diplomacy. While it is important to see the further actions of the US and China, it’s even more important to decide what we, South Korea, will do.

The peace and security of the Korean Peninsula and the recent controversial “revitalization” of the UNC are issues of this nature.

Conflicts of operational control

To the general public, the UN Command seems to be perceived as something taken for granted. There are a number of facts about the body that have recently been making the rounds: that the organization has been misappropriating the name of the United Nations since its inception; that it is a US military organization with no official relationship to the UN; that the UN General Assembly has already voted to disband it, and the US has agreed; and that it is no longer legal for the organization to use the UN flag under UN regulations. This is why some people call it a “ghost” entity.

According to UN Security Council Resolution 84, adopted on July 7, 1950, the UNC was supposed to be called the “Unified Command” and under the authority of a US general. Acting on its own accord, however, the US military arbitrarily attached the name of the United Nations to it and the name has stuck to the current day.

After the signing of the Korean War Armistice Agreement, UNC was the operational command headquarters supervised by the US Forces Korea and South Korean military and the highest military body managing the armistice regime.

Furthermore, on the same day that the armistice was signed, the 16 nations that participated in the Korean War gathered separately in Washington to announce their determination to re-enter the war in the event of another Korean conflict. Their resolve took the form of the “Washington Declaration,” which is the basis for the meetings of UNC member states we see today.

The organization has experienced two existential crises since its inception. The first was on Nov. 18, 1975, when the UN General Assembly adopted two resolutions (3390A/B). Both the Western and Communist sides called for the dissolution of the organization, including an alternative arrangement for the armistice, such as a peace agreement, and the withdrawal of foreign troops.

In an address to the UN General Assembly, then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pledged to disband the UNC by Jan.1, 1976. However, the US did not keep its promise, and in November 1978, the US-ROK Combined Forces Command was established to assume operational functions, while UNC was retained but its functions were reduced to the administration of the armistice and the provision of contingency forces.

Operational control of the South Korean armed forces was formally transferred from the UNC commander to the commander of the combined forces, but there was no substantive change as the same person held both positions.

The second crisis is the ongoing controversy over the status and function of the UNC following the possible return of wartime operational control to South Korea. If the South Korean military exercises operational control, the authority of the head of the UN Command will be limited to the US Forces Korea and reinforcements of multinational forces in the case of war.

This would blur the lines of authority between the South Korean and US military commanders in wartime. Unfortunately, this critical issue has not been adequately addressed in the debate on the return of operational control that has continued since the Roh Tae-woo administration to the present.

In particular, the Moon Jae-in administration made a deal with the US to “redefine” the transition of operational control as keeping the current Combined Forces Command structure in place and only changing the commander to a South Korean general.

This will inevitably lead to a conflict of command when a four-star US general exercises authority as the deputy commander of the UNC.

To dismantle or to consolidate, that is the UNC question

The US (military) was assuredly aware of this problem, which is why it concocted a plan to revitalize the UNC. This plan dates back to the early 2000s, but it was not until 2014 that it began to be pursued in earnest.

Since wartime operational control was to be returned to the South Korean military by 2015, after the deadline was postponed several times, the US had to be ready.

The goal is to retain the UNC, and the core of the revitalization plan is to break off and expand the chief of staff organization, which will then enable it to strengthen its functions and roles accordingly.

The deputy commander of UNC, a post that had hitherto always been held by a member of the US Forces Korea, has now been held by generals from Canada and the UK, and the staff has been expanded to include a multinational staff, currently numbering nearly 100.

Since its raison d’être is to manage the armistice regime and provide wartime reinforcements, the UNC is maintained by sacrificing peace on the Korean Peninsula and South Korea’s military sovereignty.

It has arbitrarily controlled the crossing of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the Military Demarcation Line, pulled the brake on inter-Korean exchange and cooperation, and threatened to even investigate a South Korean presidential candidate (now-President Yoon Suk-yeol) for allegedly violating the Armistice Agreement when he visited an observation post operated by the South Korean Army’s 3rd Infantry Division in December 2021. The UNC seems determined to retain almost permanent control over the South Korean military, no matter how the military organization and system changes.

There are fears that UNC will become a combatant command, but this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Not only do both South Korea and the US officially deny any such plans, but there is no need for a combatant command as long as the current operational control system and Combined Forces Command structure is maintained.

However, the possibility that an “expanded” UNC in Pyeongtaek could lead to closer integration of the seven UNC rear bases in Japan and more active participation by UNC member states to create a robust regional unified command on the Korean Peninsula is a cause for concern.

Moreover, the inclusion of Japan as a member of UNC would lend power to the pseudo-trilateral alliance between South Korea, the US and Japan, making the alliance “complete and irreversible” politically and militarily.

South Korea’s military sovereignty would also remain “incomplete and difficult to recover” as the Korean Peninsula remains divided, military tensions escalate, and a great power confrontation ensues.

The Yoon administration seems to have decided that this is the right direction to take and is leading the way. However, we should remember the Bible passage: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.”

South Korea’s military sovereignty and armistice jurisdiction should be brought back in the name of peace and sovereignty, and the US-owned-and-operated UNC should be clearly integrated with the US Forces Korea or US Forces Japan or disbanded altogether.

By Moon Jang-nyeol, former professor at Korea National Defense University

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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