[News analysis] US wants to expand the UNC’s mission to direct crisis management on the Korean Peninsula

Posted on : 2019-09-05 16:50 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
US attempting to control South Korean military via UNC after transfer of OPCON
South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo during a plenary session of the National Assembly’s Defense Committee in Seoul on Sept. 4. (Kang Chang-kwang
South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo during a plenary session of the National Assembly’s Defense Committee in Seoul on Sept. 4. (Kang Chang-kwang

After the US reportedly asserted that the United Nations Command (UNC) ought to help manage crises on the Korean Peninsula after South Korea recovers wartime operational control (OPCON) of its troops, concerns have been raised that the US is attempting to turn the UNC into a tool for controlling the South Korean military. If the UNC’s peacetime mission of monitoring the observance of the armistice agreement is expanded to include crisis management on the Korean Peninsula as a whole, that could clash with South Korea’s operational control of its military.

The UNC is a military body that was established by the United Nations after the outbreak of the Korean War, in June 1950. Subsequent to that, the UNC exercised operational control over the South Korean military and was also a signatory to the armistice agreement concluded in July 1953. The UNC’s operational control of the South Korean military was transferred to the ROK-US Combined Forces Command (CFC) upon its establishment in November 1978.

If the US expands the UNC’s mission to include crisis management on the Korean Peninsula, that raises questions about what its relationship would be with the future CFC, which will be led by a four-star general in the South Korean military following the OPCON handover. The Terms of Reference (TOR) that were reached by the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, the UNC, and the CFC in 1970 reportedly state that the UNC is in command of the CFC as long as the armistice agreement remains in place. While that appears to clash with the UNC’s handover of OPCON to the CFC, that didn’t pose a problem as long as both the UNC and the CFC were led by the same person, namely, the US Forces Korea (USFK) commander.

But if a crisis should occur on the Korean Peninsula under the future CFC, the situation would change. If the UNC participates in crisis management as the US desires, South Korea would apparently be represented by the future CFC commander and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while the US would be represented by the commander of USFK (the deputy commander of the future CFC) and the UNC commander. Under the current Terms of Reference, the UNC would be able to exercise command over the future CFC, on the grounds that the armistice agreement is still in place. Some expect that the US, once different people are in charge of USFK and the UNC, will attempt to control the South Korean military via the UNC commander even after the OPCON handover.

Such considerations are also behind the American argument that the armistice agreement should be prevented even in the event of a military clash or provocation on the Korean Peninsula. Only if the armistice agreement is still in place can the US claim that the UNC is still in command.

That would pave the way for the UNC to exert an influence on the security situation on the Korean Peninsula instead of the CFC. There are also concerns that this process would elevate the status of Japan, the site of the UNC’s rear bases. In a crisis, those rear bases would serve as logistics hubs, admitting forces and equipment from sending states and forwarding them on to South Korea. While South Korea is opposed to allowing Japanese involvement of any form, the US is likely to ask for Japanese assistance in the event of an actual crisis.

US wants to reactivate UNC and upgrade it into de facto multilateral military organization

After an uproar over reports that last month’s ROK-US command post exercise included a drill that assumed Japanese intervention under the UNC, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) released a position statement on Sept. 4. “The position of the Defense Ministry is that Japan was not a belligerent in the Korean War and that it cannot act as a sending state. No aspects of this exercise presumed a situation of involvement by the Japan Self-Defense Force,” the MND said.

The US’ apparent attempt to reactivate the UNC and upgrade it into a de facto multilateral military organization is related to these developments. In July 2018, a general from a non-American military was appointed to serve as the UNC’s deputy commander.

“The expansion of the role and scale of the UN Command indicates a change in the US’ method of managing the Korean Peninsula after the OPCON handover. The US and South Korea’s conflicting interests could also have an impact on the timeline of the OPCON transfer,” said a military expert who asked to remain anonymous.

By Yoo Kang-moon, senior staff writer, and Noh Ji-won, staff reporter

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

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