Editor’s note: Text below is an editorial by Hankyoreh, a nationalist and left-wing South Korean newspaper, followed by a news report explaining the situation to the un-initiated.
Reports indicate that the US has insisted that the United Nations Command (UNC), which is currently charged with maintaining and overseeing the armistice agreement, should also take part in managing crisis situations on the Korean Peninsula after South Korea recovers operational control of its military, known as the OPCON transfer.
This appears to be an attempt by the US army to stay in charge of military activities on the Korean Peninsula via the UNC even after a South Korean general takes charge of the ROK-US Combined Forces Command (CFC) in the early or mid-2020s. Such an attempt runs contrary to the spirit of the OPCON transfer.
If the US didn’t intend to yield control to the South Korean military, why would it have agreed to the OPCON transfer in the first place? The US needs to rethink its plan to continue exercising military leadership via the UNC.
Currently OPCON is entrusted to the CFC commander. The OPCON transfer will involve putting a South Korean general in charge of the CFC, rather than an American general, per tradition. In the ROK-US joint command post exercise last month, the two sides prepared for the OPCON transfer by having a South Korean four-star general play the role of the CFC commander.
The peacetime role of the UNC, in contrast, is to maintain and supervise the armistice agreement, while its wartime role is to collect forces from UN member states and play a secondary role in assisting the CFC. But recently, the American military has advanced the controversial argument that a North Korean invasion would constitute a violation of the armistice agreement and that the UNC’s role should be strengthened accordingly. That can only be seen as an attempt by the American military to keep exercising effective military control by expanding the role of the UNC even after the OPCON transfer.
Of course, there’s nothing new about the US military’s efforts to expand the function and role of the UNC. While the major positions at the UNC had once been concurrently held by CFC officers, the UNC has been assigned separate officers and given a stronger role over the past few years. There has also been an attempt to reorganize the UNC into a multilateral military system, with Canadian and Australian generals appointed as deputy commanders of the UNC last year.
Another idea is that the US is concerned that the OPCON transfer would be a violation of the Pershing principle, namely that American troops aren’t placed under the command of foreign militaries. But if the American military is seeking to use the UNC as a means of staying in charge even after the OPCON transfer, that should be called out as an anachronistic attitude. The power and prestige of the South Korean military is markedly different from before. It’s desirable for the American military to acknowledge that the South Korean military is in charge and to assume a supportive role after the OPCON transfer.
After the US reportedly asserted that the United Nations Command (UNC) ought to help manage crises on the Korean Peninsula after South Korea recovers wartime operational control (OPCON) of its troops, concerns have been raised that the US is attempting to turn the UNC into a tool for controlling the South Korean military. If the UNC’s peacetime mission of monitoring the observance of the armistice agreement is expanded to include crisis management on the Korean Peninsula as a whole, that could clash with South Korea’s operational control of its military.
The UNC is a military body that was established by the United Nations after the outbreak of the Korean War, in June 1950. Subsequent to that, the UNC exercised operational control over the South Korean military and was also a signatory to the armistice agreement concluded in July 1953. The UNC’s operational control of the South Korean military was transferred to the ROK-US Combined Forces Command (CFC) upon its establishment in November 1978.
If the US expands the UNC’s mission to include crisis management on the Korean Peninsula, that raises questions about what its relationship would be with the future CFC, which will be led by a four-star general in the South Korean military following the OPCON handover. The Terms of Reference (TOR) that were reached by the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, the UNC, and the CFC in 1970 reportedly state that the UNC is in command of the CFC as long as the armistice agreement remains in place. While that appears to clash with the UNC’s handover of OPCON to the CFC, that didn’t pose a problem as long as both the UNC and the CFC were led by the same person, namely, the US Forces Korea (USFK) commander.
But if a crisis should occur on the Korean Peninsula under the future CFC, the situation would change. If the UNC participates in crisis management as the US desires, South Korea would apparently be represented by the future CFC commander and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while the US would be represented by the commander of USFK (the deputy commander of the future CFC) and the UNC commander. Under the current Terms of Reference, the UNC would be able to exercise command over the future CFC, on the grounds that the armistice agreement is still in place. Some expect that the US, once different people are in charge of USFK and the UNC, will attempt to control the South Korean military via the UNC commander even after the OPCON handover.
Such considerations are also behind the American argument that the armistice agreement should be prevented even in the event of a military clash or provocation on the Korean Peninsula. Only if the armistice agreement is still in place can the US claim that the UNC is still in command. That would pave the way for the UNC to exert an influence on the security situation on the Korean Peninsula instead of the CFC.
There are also concerns that this process would elevate the status of Japan, the site of the UNC’s rear bases. In a crisis, those rear bases would serve as logistics hubs, admitting forces and equipment from sending states and forwarding them on to South Korea. While South Korea is opposed to allowing Japanese involvement of any form, the US is likely to ask for Japanese assistance in the event of an actual crisis.
US wants to reactivate UNC and upgrade it into de facto multilateral military organization
After an uproar over reports that last month’s ROK-US command post exercise included a drill that assumed Japanese intervention under the UNC, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) released a position statement on Sept. 4. “The position of the Defense Ministry is that Japan was not a belligerent in the Korean War and that it cannot act as a sending state. No aspects of this exercise presumed a situation of involvement by the Japan Self-Defense Force,” the MND said.
The US’ apparent attempt to reactivate the UNC and upgrade it into a de facto multilateral military organization is related to these developments. In July 2018, a general from a non-American military was appointed to serve as the UNC’s deputy commander.“
The expansion of the role and scale of the UN Command indicates a change in the US’ method of managing the Korean Peninsula after the OPCON handover. The US and South Korea’s conflicting interests could also have an impact on the timeline of the OPCON transfer,” said a military expert who asked to remain anonymous.