“I have mixed memories,” said Briton Frederick Grundy as he stood in a South Korean Army observation post gazing into the empty silence of the DMZ. “I am remembering old mates who are no longer here. Most are gone.”
The hillscape ahead – a cascade of contours that fades into the distant blue of North Korea – presented a different picture when Grundy was posted on it. The feature he fought for was dubbed “The Hook” due to its shape on a map, but as the “Bloody Hook” to the Australian, British and US soldiers, due to the number of lives it devoured in 1952-53.
Its trench lines were pummelled by shellfire from heavy artillery dug into hillside tunnels, its positions stormed by Chinese “human wave” assaults.
Today, the slaughter ground is patrolled by either side: the MDL, or Military Demarcation Line, runs right across its summit. Empty, serene and overgrown, it is, today, eerily beautiful.
“I think it was a just war, and there are not that many of those,” Grundy said. “It was a just war – a UN-initiated war.”
It was under the pale blue banner of the US-led UN Command that Grundy and his comrades from 16 nations fought against Chinese and North Korean troops from 1950-53. But although an armistice was signed in July 1953, the UN Command still exists in South Korea as part of the alphabet soup of forces.
There are the US Forces Korea – the 28,500-strong US force deployed to the southern half of the peninsula – and the Combined Forces Command – the command and control body that coordinates South Korean and US forces.
The UN Command plays a smaller role, but still provides Washington with both the legitimacy of a coalition and close oversight of the DMZ.
Yet even at its peak, the UN Command never fully represented UN member states – or even the UN Security Council. Now all three commands – USFK, CFC and UNC – are commanded by a “triple-hatted” US general.
The UN Command that isn’t
Following the Soviet-backed North Korean invasion of US-backed South Korea in June 1950, the UNC was only able to convene thanks to a Soviet ploy that backfired.
At that time, Moscow was boycotting the UN Security Council over its refusal to grant Beijing, which had recently ejected Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists from mainland China, the Chinese seat on the UN Security Council, which was held by Chiang’s government in Taipei.
Moscow’s boycott offered Washington clear space to pass resolutions to mass an international force and lead it in Korea under the UN flag – a powerful symbol of international legitimacy.
Today’s UN is a very different body to that of 1950. The main communist combatants of the war, China and North Korea, are now members, and China holds a permanent UN Security Council seat. In the post-colonial era, as more non-aligned states joined the international body, the UNC came under pressure.
“It is not a secret that, over time, the UN has changed, and both North Korea and China has called into question the legitimacy of the UN Command,” admitted Deputy UNC Commander Wayne Eyre in a recent briefing to foreign reporters at the UNC headquarters, in the giant US Army base at Camp Humphreys, south of Seoul.
Eyre, a Canadian general, admitted that his command “has no direct relationship” with the UN, although “we still fly the UN flag and still provide an annual report, via the US government, to the UN.”
De facto US control of the UNC was recognized by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali in a 1994 letter to North Korea, in which he wrote: “The Security Council did not establish the unified command as a subsidiary organ under its control, but merely recommended the creation of such a command, specifying that it be under the authority of the United States.
“Therefore the dissolution of the unified command does not fall within the responsibility of any United Nations organ but is a matter within the competence of the Government of the United States.”
North Korea has continued to make efforts to have the command disbanded. In 2013, the North Korean ambassador to the UN sent a letter to the UNSC, demanding the dissolution of the UNC.
“The ‘United Nations Command,’ fundamentally speaking, is a tool of war which was organized by the United States for the purpose of deploying its satellite forces and exercising its control over them during the Korean war,” the document stated.
“The actual political superior of the ‘United Nations Command,’ a signatory to the Armistice Agreement, is not the United Nations, but the United States Administration.”
Thus far, Pyongyang’s demands remain unmet. The UN Command, having been established by UN resolution, still exists, still flies the UN flag and still features UN iconography on insignia. The only way the UNC could be disbanded, Eyre said, would be via a UN resolution, or a political decision by the US government.
A force without forces
In a world in which even the United States has recognized the value of operating within coalitions, rather than unilaterally, the UNC provides Washington with a broad range of partners.
Canadian Eyre – who has trained extensively at US Army and US Marine Corps institutions, as well as having served in UN and NATO missions globally – was appointed by the United States. He believes in the mission. “The coalition continues to provide value and international legitimacy,” he said.
The command officially incorporates the “sending states” that made up the UNC of the 1950s: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, the UK and US, as well as South Korea.
Also, Denmark, Italy and Norway, which deployed medical support but not combat troops during the war, are now members of the UNC.
But the command commands very few actual soldiers. Bar the US, sending states had withdrawn their units from Korea by 1956, three years after the war ended, while Ethiopia and Luxembourg, which both deployed combat troops during the war, withdrew their flags from the UNC.
Currently, the UNC controls the lightly-armed, South Korea-US-manned Security Battalion in the truce village of Panmunjom. Moves to rejuvenate the present-day UNC have been underway since 2014 – with one aim being to beef up the command with non-US sending states personnel.
A handful of officers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK are on temporary assignments in UNC offices on US bases.
Even so, due to its lack of teeth, the UNC looks more impressive on flag-studded paper than in reality. And even if a second Korean War were to break out, sending states would not necessarily dispatch combat troops to join the UNC, which would incorporate them with the CFC.
“There is no legal obligation for sending states to send forces, but by virtue of being a member of the UNC, there is a moral obligation, in my view,” Eyre said. “Every nation will do their own calculus, but at the end of the day, that moral obligation is still there.”
DC’s eyes on the DMZ
The UNC is a“home” for sending states – it administers the UNC rear-echelon at bases in Japan and enables dialog with North Korea in the truce village of Panmunjom. But it is also tasked with enforcing the 1953 armistice agreement in South Korea. That grants the UNC oversight over the DMZ.
There, it retains the authority to monitor all personnel and equipment which enter and exit the highly sensitive, four-mile-wide zone that spans the waist of the peninsula. The actual border, the Military Demarcation Line, (MDL), runs through the center of the DMZ.
The latter role came into focus last year when a South Korean train heading into North Korea was stopped at the border by the UNC. “Our mandate is to enforce the armistice agreement, we have the authority to approve or disapprove of anything crossing the MDL,” said Eyre.
“We don’t have a mandate for sanctions enforcement … if we see something manifestly breaking UN sanctions, we will report that up.”
Still, the unprecedented exercise of authority over a vehicle and personnel of the South Korean government by the UNC caused shockwaves. And as with so many issues related to US forces in South Korea – which is seeking to gain wartime operational control of its own troops from the US – questions were raised about sovereignty.
The left-leaning Hankyoreh newspaper wrote at the time: “The South Korean government’s position is that the project in question does not represent an area subject to UN or US sanctions against North Korea. Critics have been vocal in proclaiming that Washington’s interference in inter-Korean cooperation efforts … have reached the point of infringing on sovereignty.”
Sources familiar with the issue told Asia Times that Seoul had not filed the appropriate paperwork, pre-clearance. And subsequently, a South Korean train was cleared to pass through the DMZ.
Now the UNC is busy overseeing the Comprehensive Military Agreement signed between the two Koreas last year. That includes de-mining some parts of the DMZ and overseeing three “DMZ Peace trails” which will grant limited civilian access to some parts of the zone in the South.
The UNC is also negotiating a code of conduct which would pave the way for both Northern and Southern civilians to mingle on both sides of the MDL inside the truce village of Panmunjom.
US troops – bar the single UNC battalion at Panmunjom – have withdrawn from the DMZ. This means it is the UNC – which oversees all entry and egress from the DMZ – that grants the USFK commander eyes there, up-close and personal.
“Anybody who goes into the southern side of the DMZ has to have the permission of the UNC commander,” said Steve Tharp, a retired US Army colonel who spent most of his career in the DMZ.
And they are useful eyes to have. “If the UNC was not there, he would not have that ability to check documents at the crossing points,” Tharp, an expert on the DMZ, added. “And the US would not necessarily have that ability.”
These complex points of protocols and power politics, however, were lost on Commonwealth war veterans who visited their old battlegrounds in April.
Some recalled their discomfort in fighting for what was, to them, an unknown, backward and alien country with an authoritarian leader.
“We all thought, ‘What the hell are we doing here?’” said Michael Jeffries. “We had a song, ‘Why are we fighting for this bastard Syngman Rhee?’ “a reference to South Korea’s then-president, a hardline anti-communist whose regime executed numerous civilian massacres.
“At the time, I did not think it was worthwhile,” said fellow Briton Michael Woodley, who, as an infantryman, fought in both the south and north of the peninsula. “Let’s face it – the country back then was a shithole.”
But given South Korea’s rise from the ashes of the 1950s to its current position as an economic powerhouse, a thriving democracy and a respected member of the family of nations, all agreed that the UNC’s historical mission had been accomplished.
“We created a platform for [South Koreans] and they took it and ran with it,” said Jeffries. “I am absolutely amazed at what these people have done.”
“Now, everything is fantastic, it was definitely worth it,” added Woodley. “But I had to come back to see it.”