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In Name Only: The United Nations Command And U.S. Unilateralism In Korea

By The Korea Policy Institute | July 1, 2020

Jang-hie Lee, Professor at the Law School at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, has formerly served as legal advisor to the Korean Red Cross, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade, and the Ministry of Unification. As a legal scholar, Lee’s work focuses on international human rights law, international organization law, and the law of armed conflicts. On May 28, 2020, Korea Policy Institute (KPI) Executive Board Members spoke with Lee about the United Nations Command (UNC)—a misappropriated relic of a United Nations mandate passed weeks after the official start of the Korean War on June 25, 1950. Initially envisioned as a “unified command” under US leadership, the United States unilaterally changed the “unified command” designation to “United Nations Command” and began operating with the unauthorized use of the United Nations flag and United Nations insignia. Professor Lee speaks of the UNC’s illegality, its efforts to disrupt inter-Korean cooperation, and calls for its dissolution.

[KPI] Professor Lee, could you begin by discussing whether the United Nations (UN) considers the United Nations Command (UNC) to be a part of the UN? Is the UNC subject to any UN controls and, if not, what is the legal basis for the UNC’s authority?

[Jang-hie Lee] The UNC’s legal basis rests upon a July 7, 1950 United Nations Security Council Resolution 84 (S/1588), which called to create a unified command under the United States. The UN did not have the intention to create a UNC in July 1950, and a proposal to establish a UNC had never been considered. And, the role of a unified command is different from that of the UN Command. The unified command has the authority to direct forces that participated in the Korean War, and is obligated to submit reports to the United Nations. So, in early July 1950, only the unified command had been established, and the unified command did not have the authority to create an agency. The first time the title United Nations Command had been used was July 24, 1950 in Tokyo. The US replaced the unified command with United Nations Command without consulting the Security Council. As former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has noted, the UNC is not an agency under the UN, not a subsidiary agency under the UN, nor a subordinate agency under the UN. The UN has never received reporting or considered a budget for the UNC.

[KPI] Given its illegitimacy, has the UNC ever been challenged by the international community?

[Jang-hie Lee] Yes, several times. In 1975, the countries that belonged to the communist bloc put forth a resolution for the dissolution of the UNC in the UN General Assembly, and it received a majority vote and passed. Also, around the same time, Western member nations discussed the dissolution of the UNC, but under the condition that the armistice agreement first be replaced with a peace treaty. North Korea has also officially raised the question to the UN, asking about the relationship between the UNC and the UN in 1995. Then UN Secretary-General Ghali responded to North Korea by saying that the UNC is not under UN controls. More recently in 2018, the Deputy Secretary-General of the UN offered a similar response when posed with a similar question.

[KPI] Why did the socialist countries call for dissolution in 1975 rather than raising questions about its illegitimacy? Given its origins, why didn’t they say its existence had no basis?

[Jang-hie Lee] The Security Council enabled and empowered the US to create the UNC, and did not stop the UNC from appointing a commander-in-chief and using the UN flag alongside sending states’ flags.  Since the Security Council implicitly gave permission to the US, the General Assembly recommended that the Security Council adopt a resolution to dissolve it. That was the logic behind the socialist bloc calling for dissolution.

[KPI] The UNC is said to have initiated its own revitalization campaign. Could you speak about the forces driving this effort and why revitalization is being pursued?

[Jang-hie Lee] The UNC hopes to rejuvenate because it feels an existential threat. Currently, one US general wears three hats to command the United States Forces Korea (USFK), the Combined Forces Command (CFC) of the US and ROK armies, and the UNC. And, the UNC claims to have three functions. First, endowed by the UN to the unified command, was to deter North Korean forces during and after the Korean War. Second, to manage and maintain the armistice agreement signed in 1953. Third, as noted in General Assembly Resolution 376(V) that passed on October 7, 1950, is to assist Korea’s move towards democracy and reunification. Since the 1990s, with the Cold War nearly coming to an end, there is no longer a need to deter North Korea or a socialist bloc from South Korea. The third role has not been cited much by the UNC. What remains of its functions is the maintenance of the armistice regime, which includes oversight authority of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

Also, the transfer of wartime operational control (OpCon) away from the UNC and USFK to South Korea may happen soon. On July 14, 1950, during the Korean War, Syngman Rhee gave wartime as well as peacetime operational control to the UNC. At that time, command control was not directly handed to the UNC, but it was through a joint command of USFK and ROK forces. Peacetime operational control has already been transferred to South Korea in 1994, and OpCon discussions are active. That is why the UNC feels it has to reestablish its presence on the Korean peninsula, and that is why it has been pursuing a revitalization campaign. If wartime operational command is transferred, there is no reason for its presence and they have no influence on the peninsula.

The US through the USFK has been aligning itself as “good cop” while positioning UNC as “bad cop”. And, that’s possible because the same person serves as UNC Commander, USFK Commander, and Commander of the Combined Forces’ Command. The UN, then, gets all the bad publicity and the US looks better comparatively.

[KPI] What forces are driving the discussion around a revitalization campaign? Are other countries that are participating in the UNC involved or is the impetus coming from elsewhere?

[Jang-hie Lee] The US is at the helm of these conversations since they would like to maintain control over the UNC. The other UN member states with troops stationed in South Korea are not interested. UNC forces are actually non-combatant military personnel—a sort of honor guard. They are appointed by the US command, and there are actually only about 100 individuals.

Currently, the UNC is a shell of a unit that maintains operational control authority over the military. However, actually, the military control is the Combined Forces Command of the ROK and the US forces. With discussions concerning the transfer of wartime operational control authority to South Korea ongoing, and the very real possibility of losing wartime operational command, the UNC feels their military influence will be reduced or lost along with the transfer. So, they are trying to block or postpone the wartime operational command transfer and, while doing so, they are saying that the UNC still has a role to play on the Korean peninsula. This is why the UNC has been trying to block inter-Korean cooperation or projects that improve inter-Korean relations.

Also, with increasing tension between the US and China over the South China Sea, and US efforts to limit China’s influence in the area, losing wartime operational command control on the Korean peninsula becomes more of an issue. The US is concerned that they won’t be able to deter China. What is also not very well known is that the UNC has several rear bases housed in Japan. In 1954, the UNC headquarters was actually in Tokyo, Japan and had been transferred to the U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan, Seoul in 1957. In 1952, Japan and the UNC entered a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), meaning that at anytime the UNC is in operation, they may use Japan’s roads, railroads, logistics teams, and even the Japanese self-defense army at will. In these regards, the UNC has nothing to do with Korea specifically and more to do with Korea’s geopolitical position in the region.

[KPI] Could you discuss how and why the UNC has opposed recent South Korean government efforts to promote inter-Korean cooperation?

[Jang-hie Lee] The South Korean government is very uncomfortable with the UNC’s interference with inter-Korean cooperation projects. At best, it creates bad optics for the government. But, they tolerate the UNC’s actions as they stir public opinion.

There are three examples I would like to share about when the UNC interfered with inter-Korean cooperation. The first involves the UNC delaying the inter-Korean railroad project, which had been outlined in the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration. South and North Korea decided on dates to conduct field surveys in the lead-up to a ground-breaking ceremony that would inaugurate construction re-linking rail lines that had been severed during the Korean War. With the authority to prohibit access to the DMZ and passage of the Military Demarcation Line, the UNC blocked equipment from entering the survey sites and delayed the process for quite a long time. They eventually granted access and a ground-breaking ceremony took place on December 26, 2019, but the preliminary field surveys were severely delayed. The South Korean media reported on this quite extensively.

Another example is when German officials came to South Korea on a diplomatic visit and wanted to visit the DMZ. The Minister of Unification took these international guests himself to the DMZ only to be denied entry by the UNC as they can ban access for non-military-related purposes.

A last example I would like to share has been widely covered by the media. In February of 2019, North and South Korea had planned a New Year sunrise-watching ceremony on Mount Kumgang. The UNC prohibited accompanying journalists from bringing video cameras and recording equipment into the area in an attempt to restrict media coverage of the event. The media heavily critiqued this interference and many people questioned the UNC’s intentions. And, the South Korean government did not try to limit that media coverage. Though they are not explicitly encouraging it, I believe the government values this reportage as it stirs public opinions towards certain directions.

[KPI] How might the North and South Korean governments respond to changes in the UNC, especially its dissolution?Does the South Korean government encourage or support changes to the workings of the UNC?

[Jang-hie Lee] North Korea wants the UNC to disband. Period. In 2019, North Korea officially demanded dissolution. South Korea has not, but the South Korean government has been making quite a bit of mention about citizens’ desires for the transfer of wartime operational control back to South Korea. While they don’t explicitly express it, the South Korean government’s attitude suggests that they agree with popular opinion and would like to go in the same direction. They are very cautious about engaging with this issue.

There are also a number of peoples’ campaigns and politicians demanding the dissolution of the UNC. I belong to one such organization called the UNC Issue Campaign. Our campaign oftentimes sends a questionnaire to the Ministry of National Defense asking when the UNC will be dissolved. The Ministry of Defense always provides pre-set default answer, returning often to the theme of not foreseeing dissolution anytime soon and not planning to expressly ask for it. However, there is always this difference in tone with the South Korean government’s actions and it’s important to read between the lines.

[KPI] As a legal scholar, what approach would be most promising to open up the needed political space for advancing peace on the Korean peninsula?

[Jang-hie Lee] Ultimately, it would be the dissolution of the UNC. Then, after that, it would be to work towards a peace agreement. More immediately, as the UNC Issue Campaign I am involved is pursuing, we should prohibit the illegal use of the UN flag. There are regulations that determine how and under what circumstance a UN flag may be used. While the unified command had been authorized to use the UN flag, the UNC of course has not. Right now, however, there are bases in Korea flying the UN flag and the US uses the UN flag wherever US forces go. The UNC Issue Campaign feels this needs to be the first step. For peace on the Korean peninsula, we don’t think the UNC has to be immediately dissolved. The UNC, as one of the signatories of the armistice agreement, would first have to transfer power invested in it to the South Korean government in order for Korea to reach a peace agreement or a peace treaty. Then, the South Korean government would legally become a party of the armistice, which would help clear the legal hurdles involved in negotiating a peace treaty. But, the ultimate goal from a legal perspective would be to dissolve the UNC.


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