United Nations Command and a Korean Peace Process

United Nations Command and a Korean Peace Process

Colonel (Retired) Seung Joon “Steve” Lee

Former U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer


The United Nations Command (UNC) and its Member States have a role in both the present stability and future peace of the Korean Peninsula.  Since the first Panmunjeom Summit in April 2018, there has been much speculation about a peaceful settlement to the Korean War.  UNC and its 18 Member States, which includes South Korea, has a vital role in maintaining the stability that the Armistice Agreement affords and has the established experience and credibility for supporting the development and implementation of a peace settlement.  Instead of hindering a peace settlement, the United Nations Command would provide the stability to allow room for a peace process to develop.  A key factor for our side of the military demarcation line (MDL) will be our own trust and ability to work together.  Without trust and working together, North Korea will have the upper hand in controlling the pace and topics for discussions on military matters leading to a possible peace settlement.

In exploring the UNC and its role in a peace process, this article will address the following questions:

  • What is the relationship between the United Nations Command, the Armistice Agreement, and a possible end-of-war declaration or peace treaty?
  • What might be the implications of dissolving the United Nations Command, including the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC) and the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC)?
  • What should be the relationship between South Korea and the UN Command going forward?

A Note About “Peace” on the Korean Peninsula.

Over the years, the use of the term “peace” to describe the situation on the Korean Peninsula has been a misnomer.  And even though we can want peace and seek peace, by the very nature of the armistice in Korea, we do not have peace in Korea.  A more accurate way to describe the situation in Korea is in terms of stability and security.  There are arguments about how stable or secure the situation in Korea really is, but compared to war, the situation in Korea is stable, but not in peace.

Making this distinction is an important step in more clearly understanding the security environment of the Korean Peninsula.  Not making this distinction can cause confusion.  For example, policy makers among the 17 Sending States (which includes the United States) may wonder why their nation still needs to be committed to an area that has “peace.”

UNC’s Past:  Formed to Defend South Korea Against North Korea’s Attack and to “Restore International Peace and Security in the Area.”

In response to North Korea’s attack against South Korea on June 25, 1950, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 83 on June 27, 1950 and recommended “that the Members of the United Nations furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area.”  After a bitter and difficult war that resulted in the Korean Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953, the first reason for gathering Member nations for UNCSR 83 was met – repelling North Korea’s armed attack.  However, even after 67 years, the second reason for Member nations to provide assistance to South Korea has not been met – restoring international peace and security in the area.

UNC’s Present:  Charged to Maintain Stability Through the Armistice Agreement.

The United Nations Command, its 18 Member States, and the three-nation Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission already exist as a structure and international group of nations who are committed to “restoring international peace and security in the area.”  Formed by UNCSR 84, the United Nations Command’s mission has changed from originally defending South Korea against North Korea’s attack to maintaining the Armistice Agreement that keeps stability between the two sides. 

The daily work of supervising the Armistice Agreement is the Military Armistice Commission which was formed by the Armistice Agreement and includes both parties of the Agreement.  The United Nations Command’s component is called the UNC Military Armistice Commission or UNCMAC and is represented by all 18 Member States.  The NNSC continues to provide neutral observations and reports of activities pertaining to the Armistice Agreement.  Combined, the UNC Member States and NNSC provide an international presence of 21 nations who are committed to maintaining Armistice stability.

They all support UNC and its mission.  Over the years, UNC has recognized a need to revitalize itself, and over the past five to six years, efforts have been underway to make UNC a more capable and structured organization.  For most of its history, UNC positions were filled by U.S. personnel.  Then ROK personnel who were assigned to the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) were dual-hatted as UNC personnel.  And in recent years, UNC created and opened up positions to include the Deputy Commander of UNC for other Sending State personnel.  This growth in UNC’s structure has caused some concern in the ROK Government and military.  But the issues have been more about how the growth will be managed than the need for UNC.

UNC’s Future:  A Role in a Korean Peace Settlement.

Until a “final peace settlement is achieved,” UNC will remain to ensure the stability that the Armistice affords.  As the current road to a peace settlement continues to build, there are several ways that UNC, its 17 Sending States, and the NNSC can transform to support a peace process. 

A peace settlement that will end the Armistice Agreement does not have to mean the end of the United Nations Command.  There are several reasons why the United Nations Command would remain relevant during a peace process that could lead to the signing of a peace agreement.

1.  There is still international legitimacy for the United Nations Command.  As described earlier, UNSCR 83’s “to restore international peace and security in the area” remains in effect.  This is often overlooked but would be an important and relevant reason for a UNC role in a peace process.  The United Nations Command exists as an international group of nations committed to the peaceful resolution of the Korean Armistice Agreement.  In a peace process, UNC could remain an international body to maintain stability that would give the peace process room to develop.

2.  UNC is uniquely experienced to negotiate with the North Korean People’s Army (KPA).  No matter how the Korean Armistice ends, there will be a need to negotiate the dissolution of the DMZ.  UNC has the unique experience and personnel who have worked issues along the DMZ for several decades.  The key leaders and experts have been trained to negotiate with the KPA.  They understand the KPA negotiation style and modus operandi.  UNCMAC has the linguist, operational expertise, and knowledge to negotiate with the KPA. 

These experiences and skills took UNC years to develop.  Because the KPA keep their key personnel for years and even decades, they already have more experience.  So, to dismantle the UNC team would give North Korea an advantage and the initiative at a crucial time in negotiating with the KPA. 

3.  There is a role for the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission.  NNSC could adjust its original mission of observing force build up on the Korean Peninsula to being an international neutral body for disarmament.  The NNSC has shown decades of commitment in being neutral bodies for maintaining stability under the Armistice Agreement.  Even though North Korea no longer officially recognizes this group, Pyongyang has a familiarity with this organization and may be more accepting of the NNSC as a group that is already in place to provide neutral observations of disarmament.  The mission also could lead to NNSC’s neutral observation of dismantling North Korean nuclear and missile sites.

South Korea and the United Nations Command Going Forward.

There are several roads to get to a peace destination, and along the way there will be several variables, obstacles, enablers, and conditions.  Many of these will be outside of UNC’s control and authorities.  However, there are several ways that UNC can help its 18 Member States, including South Korea and the United States, get there.  The main factor will be the trust between South Korea and the United Nations Command. 

For its part, the United Nations Command has opportunities to continue showing its strong desire to support South Korea in its engagements and initiatives with North Korea that could lead to a peace settlement.  The UNC also has the opportunity to clearly communicate that it views this support of South Korea and its role in maintaining the stability that the Armistice Agreement provides as mutually supportive.  One of the main risks that UNC will need to manage is all the voices from its 18 Member States and the three voices from the NNSC.  And the U.S., as the designated leader of UNC, has to balance its UNC obligations and its bilateral relationship with South Korea.

South Korea should seize two opportunities.  First, South Korea should take advantage of UNC’s mission and authorities that frees up South Korea to focus on other military issues with North Korea.  Second, Seoul should pursue an active campaign of garnering support from the 17 Sending States and the NNSC.  This would allow Seoul to show a desire to welcome this international support and goodwill.  Seoul would also be taking the initiative in shaping support to better meet its needs. 

The one thing that would lead to a fractured front against North Korea would be a simmering of distrust on our side of the MDL that could lead to conflicting actions or words.  Ultimately, such actions or words would give North Korea an advantage in negotiations toward a peace settlement to end the Korean Armistice Agreement.

About the author:

Colonel (Ret.) Steve Lee served 22 years as a U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer in various assignments in Korea and The Pentagon.  He served as a special assistant to two Commanders of the United Nations Command, the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command, and U.S. Forces Korea.  He is a former Army Attaché in the U.S. Embassy, Seoul.  Colonel Lee was the 38th Secretary of UNCMAC, who has been interviewed on NBC’s The Today Show and FOX News.  He has moderated and participated in numerous panels about Korea and the ROK-U.S. Alliance.  He is the Senior Vice President of the Korea Defense Veterans Association (KDVA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the ROK-U.S. Alliance and the Veterans who built the Alliance and continue to serve it.

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