CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea – At a time when Beijing’s military power is rising on a trajectory that is bringing it toward par with the United States, the Biden administration is frustrated by its inability to craft a “NATO of East Asia.”
Amid considerable publicity, Washington has managed to pull together a network of smaller and legally fuzzier alliances in the region, most recently AUKUS and the Quad.
Widely overlooked, however, is the far older and far more multinational United Nations Command (UNC), which dates back to 1950 – the year the Korean War broke out. To this day, it oversees the portion of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) south of the north-south demarcation line.
The UNC includes 17 nations under its banner – nations that could feasibly return to fight under US leadership if hostilities recommence in Korea.
The UNC is receiving fresh looks as political chatter about a formal end to the Korean War raises doubts about the body’s long-term mission. But abolishing the command won’t be an open and shut case.
The Seoul government’s position is that the land in the southern part of the DMZ “belongs to South Korea, so we should exercise control over it,” says Moon Chung-in of Seoul’s Sejong Institute, who has advised all three South Korean presidents who have engaged with North Korea.
“But the UNC says the exercise of control can prevent conflict, and their claim should be ahead of our government demands.”
Long war history
The UNC was created under UN Security Council resolutions that followed hot on the invasion of South Korea by North Korea in 1950.
The force was only able to use the UN brand and fly the UN banner due to the fact that the Soviet Union was, at the time, boycotting the UNSC over the non-admittance of Mao Zedong’s Beijing to the body. The requisite UNSC seat was, at the time, occupied by Chiang Kai-shek’s Taipei.
The absence of communist representation granted the rump UNSC, made up of democratic-bloc nations, the latitude required to establish the US-led multinational force. That decision meant that the South’s side in the Korean War was fought by the UN Command – although the US was by far the largest foreign contingent.
Since then the UN has massively changed its complexion: Both North Korea and the People’s Republic of China, the combatants against which the UNC fought, are now members of the chamber, with China occupying the UNSC seat it did not possess in 1950.
Hence, critics of the alliance – such as North Korea – say it is unrelated to today’s UN. Still, the North Korean government and the South Korea-based United Nations Command have one thing in common: They both want the latter to pack up and go home.
Where the Kim regime, and the multinational force that battled it during the 1950-53 Korean War, certainly differ is over the timing and mechanics of the move.
“My delegation holds that immediate measures should be taken to dismantle the UNC in South Korea, which abuses the name of the United Nations,” North Korea’s delegate to the UN, Ambassador Kim Song, told the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York on October 27.
He accused the UN Command of being a tool for the US “occupation” of South Korea.
Perhaps surprisingly, the deputy head of the UN Command, or UNC, is not a million miles away from the North Korean position.
“We are an organization trying to put ourselves out of a job,” Australian Vice-Admiral Stuart Mayer told a small group of foreign reporters last week.
Mayer added that the end of that job will be signaled “by achieving peace in the area.”
Moon’s push for peace
A key part of that job is overseeing the terms of the 1953 armistice – most particularly along the flashpoint DMZ that divides the Korean peninsula. The two sides have massed huge forces above and below it.
Now, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, counting down the last months of his presidency, and possibly eying his place in the history books, is pushing to end a brutal, three-year war that started as a civil conflict that rapidly spiraled into the Cold War’s first hot war.
Though it ended in July 1953, the mechanism that halted hostilities was an armistice, not a peace treaty.
In the decades since, neither side disarmed, and hostilities have continued: commando raids, naval skirmishes, DMZ clashes and constantly rising and falling tensions. And with North Korea now armed with ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, the stakes extend well beyond the peninsula.
In his last speech before the UN General Assembly, Moon called for a declaration to end this ever-simmering situation.
“Today, I once again urge the community of nations to mobilize its strengths for the end-of-war declaration on the Korean Peninsula,” he said on September 21. “When the parties involved in the Korean War stand together and proclaim an end to the war, I believe we can make irreversible progress in denuclearization and usher in an era of complete peace.”
On September 24, the influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Kim Yo Jong, speaking via state media, called Moon’s idea an “admirable one” and said Pyongyang was open to “constructive discussions” with Seoul.
These statements by the North and South – as well as a flurry of related diplomatic talk between South Korea and the US in the weeks since – suggest the end of Mayer’s job may, at last, be in sight.
Or, perhaps not.
“A peace declaration and a peace treaty are two different things,” the Australian vice-admiral pointed out.
The commander of the UNC has always been a US general. That general is a busy man, as he wears three hats. He heads not only the UNC, but also the US Forces Korea and the Combined Forces Command.
USFK is the 27,000 to 28,000-strong US military force stationed on the peninsula under the Seoul-Washington mutual defense treaty. The CFC is a headquarters that coordinates South Korean and US forces.
It is the UNC that would, in the event of hostilities, coordinate the “sending states” units: the 22 nations that fought, or granted medical aid, during the 1950-53 war.
However, as none of the 17 UNC member states, bar the US, is legally bound to defend South Korea – and as democracies are today far less willing to engage in overseas wars than they were in 1950 – it is not clear how many troops would flock to the old UNC banner.
But the US has not fought its recent wars alone. It has been joined by “coalitions of the willing.” And a person familiar with the situation, from a UNC member state, told Asia Times “there is no legal obligation, but there is a moral obligation.”
Fortunately, deterrence may continue to prevent a hot war from ever reigniting on the peninsula, a gamble which may explain why some US-allied nations see value in the UNC.
Moreover, being part of a US-led security structure in the region provides useful eyes peering at some very strategic real estate.
“This is vital ground where Korea sits – it is the juncture of the most complete strategic network of nations in the region,” Mayer said. “Look at the EU’s statements on security, look at ‘Global Britain.’ The wealth and welfare of hundreds of millions of people depend on the stability of Northeast Asia, and stability is built by a village, not an individual.”
It is also in the US interest, as it seeks to broaden the bases of its alliances in recent years, to invite senior allied officers at the deputy commander level. This removes some weight from the US commander.
The US “saw that when you give a guy three jobs, the job they thought of last was the UNC job,” Mayer said. “It was identified that they needed to look at this through the lens of the international community.”
In 2018, Canadian General Wayne Eyre became the first non-American to become deputy commander of the UNC. He was succeeded by Mayer, who is due to stand down in advance of his retirement in the coming months.
Both are serious players. Eyre went on to command the Canadian Army. Mayer, one of Canberra’s sharpest strategic minds and a veteran of three conflicts, formerly commanded the Australian fleet.
A British Army general – as yet, unnamed – is expected to fill the seat next.
While Mayer said his multinational team members “don’t think like Americans,” US officers “understand that having a divergent group of skills is worth the pain.” Citing Harvard studies, Mayer noted that “a diverse, high performing team is the most effective team you can have – a homogenous high-performing team would not operate as effectively.”
The UNC is in tight lockstep with US forces. It is based in the heart of Camp Humphreys, south of Seoul – the biggest American base outside the continental US.
Still, Mayer makes abundantly clear that the UNC is not a NATO, nor even a Quad – it has a very specific, only-on-the-peninsula role.
“We do our bit for security in East Asia, but we don’t seek to become a regional policeman or an Asian NATO,” he said.
North Korea’s antis, South Korea’s antis
The nation it is postured against has excellent reasons to see the UNC pack up and go home – hence North Korea’s UN statement, and, perhaps, its warmth toward an end-of-war declaration.
Mayer was unsurprised by the North Korean announcement. “This is not new. They have called for this before and of course they would seek it,” he said. “Just as they reject the international community on human rights and sanctions.”
There may also be hopes of a creeping, chipping-way process: Remove the UNC, then add further pressure to evict the CFC and USFK from the peninsula.
“That way, they can reduce the problem so it is one party against another,” Mayer said of North Korea’s strategy.
But while there is a widespread, if perhaps resigned, South Korean acceptance of the USFK, some segments of the public have come out strongly against the UNC.
This is, in part, because the UNC oversees access to the DMZ in the South. No such oversight body exists in the North. Oversight covers both military and civilian access.
UNC officers manning one of two key rail crossing points on the DMZ, amid the heady days of inter-Korean engagement in 2018, halted a South Korean train that was heading north on a mission to examine the North Korean rail network – a precursor to a possible linking of rail tracks.
Their reason? According to the UNC, the train did not have the appropriate paperwork to pass sanctions inspection.
South Korea’s left reeled at the news that a foreign-led military force had the authority to prevent a highly promising exercise of inter-Korean engagement.
Some of the UNC’s critics have forgotten that the train was, subsequently, let through to carry out its mission after the requisite paperwork was filed. And following the failure of the 2019 Hanoi summit, the promising cross-border railway connection was put on an indefinite back burner – where it remains to this day.
“In 2018 there was a lot of adverse reporting about UNC,” Mayer said. But he added: “Democracies are diverse and everyone has a right.”
Still, for a fast-rising middle power – already overawed by the US, which is clearly the senior partner in the bilateral alliance – the subservience of Seoul to the authority of another (albeit related) military force can be galling.
“The UNC, in a sense, is an organization above our chief of staff,” Moon Chung-in, the academic who heads think tank the Sejong Institute, told Asia Times.
While Moon comprehends both sides’ views, his personal feelings are unequivocal.
“For me, it is clear that the territory and the administrative control [of the southern side of the DMZ] should belong to South Korea,” he said. “But you cannot ignore institutional inertia.”
‘What is peace?’
Mayer is less emotional but has some cold hard analyses that argue for the retention of the UNC.
This is particularly the case at present, when – according to multiple analyses in South Korean media – the US side is lukewarm, at best, to the idea of a peace declaration.
This apparent disconnect is adding opacity to what – if anything – could actually come about in the coming months.
The biggest outcome would be an actual treaty, legally constituted and signed by China, North Korea and the United States. Although Seoul is driving the debate in 2021, it did not sign the 1953 armistice on the grounds that it left the peninsula divided and the conflict unresolved.
A treaty could, indeed, spell the end of the UNC.
Once “peace and security” is achieved, “the mandate goes away and there is a process to that,” Mayer said. Once the country called upon to lead the UNC in 1950 – the US – is satisfied that the mission is done, “it would be my view that that would be the point when the US should make recommendations that the UNC should be collapsed.”
But President Moon’s proposal to the UN General Assembly is far easier to achieve than an actual peace treaty. A peace declaration might hold immense symbolic force – particularly for Moon, who is to leave office next May after a March election.
However, it would have none of the mutually binding obligations that would be required in the formal transition from armistice to peace treaty. This could explain why – according to widespread analyses in South Korean media – that the US is, at best, lukewarm to Moon’s proposal.
“The problem is, people don’t know what it means when they say ‘peace,’” Mayer said. “Confidence measures? Publicity measures? Or a first step to a peace treaty?”
Differences of opinion have already been aired behind closed doors.
“It is important to consult on what this means between South Korea and the United States,” he said. “Just before [the 2019 North Korea-US summit in] Hanoi we went down this road and, at that point, it proved difficult as people used those words but had different understandings of what they mean.”
Conservative presidential candidate Yoon Seok-yeol is unimpressed by Moon’s suggestion. “If that sort of non-legally binding statement comes into reality, it will weaken the UNC in Korea,” the candidate, a former prosecutor, told foreign reporters last week.
Moreover, he voiced a common criticism held by South Korea’s right-wing: That such a declaration would add volume to the voices of those in South Korea who favor a withdrawal not just of the UNC, but also of all US forces.
“If that sort of statement is achieved, there are going to be growing voices for the withdrawal or reduction of US forces in [South] Korea,” he said.
Those voices, of course, would be speaking within their rights to free speech within the framework of the democratic polity that is South Korea.
But another voice in favor of the UNC comes from a very different angle.
Chun In-bum is a widely respected South Korean retired general who formally headed his country’s Special Warfare Command. While Moon, the academic, cited sovereign exercise of South Korean power as an argument against the UNC, Chun cited restrictions on that power as an argument in favor of the UNC.
“Whenever there is a shooting within the DMZ, an investigation by the UNC occurs,” he told Asia Times. “And more often than not, the UNC would point out that some of the reactions of the South Korean forces were overreactions.”
Discussing the UNC’s oversight mandate, Chun cited soaring military tensions in 2015, after two South Korean troops were critically wounded by a North Korean landmine.
At that time, Chun said, “the South Koreans wanted to put some heavy weapons into the DMZ” – a violation of the armistice, which does not permit weapons heavier than small arms into the four-km-wide zone. I cannot go into details,” he added, citing operational security, “but the UNC would not buy into that request.”