On October 22, the United Nations Command convened a meeting at a three-sided table in the truce village of Panmumjom on the border that separates North Korea and South Korea. Sitting on one side was a three-member contingent from the UNC, led by U.S. Army Col. Burke Hamilton. To his right was Col. Cho Yang-guen of the Korean People’s Army of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and to his left, Col. Om Chang-nam of the Army of the Republic of Korea (ROK).
After a session that U.S. Forces Korea called “historic,” the UN Command announced that North and South Korea will withdraw firearms and guard posts at the Joint Security Area in the Demilitarized Zone, known as the DMZ, an operation that was completed on October 25. It was the latest effort by the two Koreas to implement the Comprehensive Military Agreement signed in September by Chairman Kim Jong-un and President Moon Jae-in at their third summit meeting in Pyongyang.
The trilateral meeting, explained Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, the UNC’s U.S. Commander, “joined the existing Armistice mechanisms” used by the KPA and the UN Command with the “more recent” North and South Korean military dialogue triggered by the inter-Korean CMA. In a USFK press release, he said the three commands will be holding similar meetings in the “near future” on such topics as reducing security personnel and “adjusting surveillance equipment” along their 160-mile border.
A few days earlier, in an operation also observed by the UNC commander, the two Koreas removed dozens of landmines in one section of the DMZ. And on October 26, in a separate bilateral meeting in the northern part of Panmunjom, generals from North and South agreed to demolish twenty-two of the front-line guard posts along the DMZ. They declared that all hostilities and accidental clashes along the border would be banned starting on November 1. The demilitarization project was verified by the UN Command.
These actions represent a significant shift in the role of the UNC. Now that the Trump administration and South Korea appear intent on negotiating a disarmament deal with the DPRK and the two Koreas are moving forward on their plans to end the Korean War and create an environment for peace and reconciliation, the U.S.-run command appears to be shifting from being a tough enforcer of the armistice agreement that ended the fighting in 1953 to becoming almost an neutral arbitrator between North and South.
“We consider the UNC to be revitalized,” Canadian Lt. Gen. Wayne Eyre, the first non-U.S. general to serve as deputy commander of the UNC, recently declared in a remarkable and (as far as I know) unprecedented speech in Washington. “The Comprehensive Military Agreement is something we view as de-escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and we’re working very hard as we speak to ensure its implementation.” The UNC “has a new life, new vitality and good forward movement,” he said at an October 5th event organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
As an example of the Command’s enhanced role in the peace process, Eyre disclosed that the UNC has approved the movement of 5,700 people through the DMZ this year, not including the 400 or so North and South Koreans who crossed the border during the Olympics. In contrast, there were zero approvals in 2017. Its role in cross-border dialogue with the DPRK has dramatically increased as well. In 2018, after a hiatus of several years, the UNC restarted its phone connections to North Korea’s KPA to “at least twice a day” and sometimes more, according to Eyre. Like the October 22 meeting, these include officers at the colonel level, but they also include general officer discussions for the first time since 2009.
These changes to the UNC have received little notice in the increasingly bitter disputes between the United States and the ROK over the pace of the inter-Korean peace and denuclearization process. But the UNC’s powers have captured the attention of some Koreans and Korea area experts. Last year, for example, a retired South Korean general proposed in the Washington publication 38 North that the UN Command had a “potential role” to play in the nuclear standoff, arguing that the command “could be utilized to provide international support, monitoring, supervision and oversight of North-South denuclearization arrangements.”
Over the summer, the possibility of shifting the UNC’s role to include easing tensions for both South Korea and the DPRK was broached in a report by five prominent experts on the Koreas, including four from the United States. The sweeping proposal, which was published by the Berkeley-based Nautilus Institute, was triggered in part by comments from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shortly after the Singapore summit that President Trump might agree to “alter” the armistice to accommodate the DPRK’s desire for security guarantees, and involved transforming the 1953 agreement into a partnership between a reorganized UNC and North and South Korea.
Analysts proposed—presciently, in turns out—that an “amended” UN Command could engage with the militaries of South and North Korea on joint operations such as the management of mine clearing as well as military training and counterterrorism. “In short, treating the DPRK as a ‘security partner’ may serve American, allied, and regional security interests better than either ally or enemy,” the Nautilus paper, published on July 6, concluded. Among its authors were two former high-ranking U.S. diplomats, Thomas Pickering and Philip Yun.
At his October 5 talk, I asked General Eyre about the proposal. He replied that a shift in UNC responsibilities might be “conceivable” in the trust and verification stages of a denuclearization agreement. “Could the UNC fill the gap? Perhaps, yes,” he said. “But would it be palatable? Maybe not to all.” He suggested that his experience with the UN in Cyprus, where a UN Peacekeeping Force has been monitoring a ceasefire agreement between Greek and Turkish forces on the island, “could be a model.”
Unfortunately, General Eyre’s enthusiasm for an enhanced UNC role in Korea was obscured by a Reuters report on his remarks that focused entirely on the end-of-war declaration sought by the DPRK in its negotiations with the ROK and the United States. “Even if there is no legal basis” for such a declaration, General Eyre said, “emotionally people would start to question the presence and the continued existence of the United Nations Command. And it’s a slippery slope then to question the presence of U.S. forces on the peninsula.”
The quotes were accurate. But they also seemed a logical leap from his earlier remarks that the UNC is viewed with suspicion by some Koreans as well as by China, Russia and other UN members. He had also emphasized that the foreign-military presence in Korea can’t last forever. “Don’t get me wrong—at some point the [UN] command has to go away,” he said, after explaining how closely the UNC adheres to policies set by the Pentagon. “But it has to be at the right time.”
Because a declaration to end the war is different from an actual peace treaty, he continued, “the requirements to continue to have a mechanism to formally de-escalate incidents need to exist.” He pointed out that this difference was addressed by President Moon upon his return from Pyongyang in September, when he said that a declaration would “in no way” affect the status of the UNC.
The UN Command in Korea was created by the UN Security Council shortly after the North Korean invasion of the South in June 1950. Under UN Resolution 84, the United States was authorized to form a unified UN Command that was eventually made up of seventeen “sending states” that included soldiers from the UK, Canada, Turkey, Belgium, the Philippines, France and Greece. It was easily adopted because, at the time, the Soviet Union was boycotting the council and could not employ its veto power. Second, China was represented by the anti-communist Nationalist government of Taiwan, which avidly supported the military intervention on the peninsula.
But of the total forces, 64 percent came from South Korea and 32 percent from the United States; only four percent came from the other nations. Moreover, the United States had veto power over any country that wished to join and under that authority excluded Taiwan, according to a former UNC officer and armistice expert I spoke to in Seoul (he was referred to me by U.S. Forces Korea, which did not want to comment). The U.S. commander of the UNC, then as now, answered directly to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. “There were no Koreans in the chain of command,” the former UNC officer, who would only speak on background, reminded me. The armistice was signed by a U.S. general representing the UN Command and his equivalents from the DPRK and China.