From 2017-2021, I was special advisor for North Korea and senior advisor for Korea policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Among my duties was policy oversight of the United Nations Command (UNC) in Korea. This made sense because a core part of managing the Department’s policy on North Korea naturally included deterrence and policy options to defend South Korea. I thought oversight of the ready-made coalition of friends and partners comprising UNC would be an easy part of my job. I was wrong.
I quickly discovered that the UNC is the target of deep distrust and sometimes paranoia in South Korea. I was struck by my South Korean counterparts’ straightforwardness in accusing UNC of dishonest ulterior motives. A regular, cordial conversation among military allies could quickly veer off course into raised voices and flared tempers at the very mention of the UNC.
In my experience working this esoteric issue, South Korean officials’ concern with the UNC fits into three themes: general suspicion over its activities and long-term plans; judgment that the UNC violates Korean sovereignty; and belief that it represents an embarrassing relic of the past.
I believe these misunderstandings partly arise from the UNC’s unique responsibilities and the fact that for many years the more well-known U.S. commands in South Korea, the Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces Korea, eclipsed it. For a long time all three commands shared the same staff as well as the same U.S. commander. As successive leaders strove to disentangle their staff and refocus each command on its core responsibility, the UNC seemingly re-emerged. It was not that the UNC was doing anything new or different, just that we had become more public in identifying its activities.
Moreover the UNC, despite its name, is not a U.N. Peacekeeping Operation. In UNSCR 84, the United Nations Security Council chartered the United States to create a command to lead an international response to repel the armed attack by North Korea. Later, the UNC signed the 1953 Armistice on behalf of the defenders, and with that assumed responsibility for enforcing it. The UNC was authorized to use the U.N. name, seal, and flag. South Korea never signed the Armistice.
As a result, under the Armistice the UNC has unique responsibilities for the security of inter-Korean land and maritime borders such as the Han River Estuary, the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, the Joint Security Area, and the Northwest Islands. The UNC also has jurisdiction over some political/military issues such as rules of engagement during Armistice, any crossing of the Military Demarcation Line, and supporting the four-country Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission. It executes these every day in concert with its very involved South Korean ally.
Should it ever become necessary, the UNC is also the natural home of future international contributions toward Korea’s defense. Just like it did in 1950, the UNC is designed to receive those forces and assign them to the warfighting commands.
This leads to the second theme. In July 2019, two South Korean media outlets quoted unnamed South Korean government officials accusing the United States of trying to secretly add Japan as a UNC member with the intent of creating a separate operational command to short-circuit OPCON transition (the planned transition of wartime control to a binational command led by a South Korean officer). Similarly-placed stories accused the UNC of interfering with the Inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA) by denying crossings of the Military Demarcation Line. More than once my South Korean interlocutors would hint that the United States used the UNC to prevent inter-Korean rapprochement.
These stories were not true. While Japan already hosts UNC-Rear bases under separate authorities designed to ensure logistics access to Korea in the event of another conflict, we never tried to add Japan as a UNC member. We have also been transparent that we do not intend the UNC to be a warfighting command in the future (in fact, any cursory review of its staffing and structure shows that it cannot directly command forces). Nor has the UNC ever denied a crossing of the Military Demarcation Line when South Korean officials made the request through proper channels and in accordance with standing timelines. Finally, even though the United States is not a party to the CMA we still chose to honor and abide by it in solidarity with our ally.
With each story, however, trust in one of the United States and South Korea’s most enduring and successful defense institutions is degraded.
All that may be well and good, but let us address the elephant in the room. My Korean allies would frequently ask me point blank why we needed a UNC at all anymore. Could we not simply disband it and transfer its authorities to South Korea or one of the other commands? I was asked what purpose this “relic of the Cold War” serves – a relic, my South Korean interlocutors would often emphasize, that was created in a time when South Korea was vulnerable.
The answer is simple: The UNC signed the Armistice and it remains the legal instrument by which U.S. obligations and the ongoing absence of hostilities are codified. Of course the U.S.-South Korea relationship has other strong foundations, such as the U.S.-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty, but those are separate from the Armistice Agreement. Any change to the Armistice, and the UNC’s obligations under it, requires either a “separate political agreement” or mutual consent by all parties to the Korean War. I think it is plainly obvious why no one seriously seeks to reopen negotiations with China and North Korea over South Korea’s security.
Anthony W. Holmes was special advisor for North Korea in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2017-2021, after beginning as a strategic intelligence officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2008. During his tenure as special advisor, Holmes led the DOD team that developed core defense elements of the Maximum Pressure Campaign and was one of only two DOD representatives at the inaugural U.S.-DPRK Summit in Singapore. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone.