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(News Focus) Seoul's end-of-war declaration push raises questions over UNC future

Defense 08:15 November 17, 2021

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Nov. 17 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's steady pursuit of declaring a formal end to the Korean War is again raising complex questions over the future of the U.N. Command (UNC), a U.S.-led entity formed during the 1950-53 conflict as part of efforts to restore peace, analysts said Wednesday.

The proposed declaration may help bring about a semblance of sustainable peace -- long an elusive goal, but it could end up weakening the rationale for the command's existence, they noted.

The UNC returned to the spotlight last month, as North Korean Ambassador to the U.N. Kim Song renewed calls for its abolition, accusing it of only serving America's political and military interests.

His accusations came as the command has been seen reinforcing its headquarters by seeking more contributions from member countries, having previously double-hatted staff focus exclusively on their UNC roles and through other measures.

This file photo shows the national flag of the United States and the U.N. Command flag. (Yonhap)

"The UNC was born to repel North Korean invaders during the Korean War," Park Won-gon, a North Korean studies professor at Ewha Womans University, said. "Should an end to the war be declared, North Korea may no longer be viewed as a belligerent threat -- a scenario that could shake the foundation of the UNC."

Under a 1950 U.N. mandate to address the North's "breach of peace," the command was launched as an overarching warfighting institution consisting of more than 20 countries dedicated to defending the South. The war ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty.

Later, the UNC's role was reduced to enforcing the armistice and other related missions after it handed over its operational control over South Korean troops to the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command in 1978.

The Moon Jae-in administration has been hammering away at the end-of-war declaration as an entry point to set in motion a broad initiative for denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.

It has recently been stepping up consultations with the U.S. regarding a text of the declaration, though uncertainty remains over whether the North would accede to it, particularly when it has only months left before the end of its five-year term in May.

"By putting an end to the Korean War, our government intends to commence the process of making irreversible progress in denuclearization and turning the abnormally long armistice into a peace regime," Seoul's First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun said during a forum in Washington on Monday.

The North Korean envoy's demand for the UNC removal was emblematic of Pyongyang's long-held stance that the command is a U.S.-controlled entity to promote America's interests as opposed to a collective security mechanism.

"The U.S. insistence on the continued existence of the U.N. Command is aimed at legitimizing and perpetuating its occupation of South Korea and meeting its political and military goals in the Asia-pacific region," Kim said during a U.N. General Assembly session in New York on Oct. 27.

Kim Song, North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations, speaks during a committee meeting of the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Oct. 27, 2021, in this file image captured from the U.N. Web TV site. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

His remarks added to concerns Pyongyang could seize on the end-of-war declaration to make the case that the UNC has no reason and place to stand, with relevant countries looking for a permanent peace regime to replace the armistice.

Seoul's foreign ministry sought to quell such worries.

"The declaration is a political, symbolic measure to build confidence (with the North)," Choi Young-sam, the ministry spokesperson, told a regular press briefing earlier this month. "This doesn't mean a legal, structural change in the current armistice regime, including the UNC's standing."

This file photo, taken April 15, 2021, shows Choi Young-sam, the spokesperson of the foreign ministry, speaking during a regular press briefing at the ministry in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Amid the talk of the declaration's ramifications on the UNC, the command has apparently been seeking to bolster its presence.

On the occasion of its 70th founding anniversary in July last year, the UNC launched its official website in yet another sign it has been pushing to beef up its overall activities.

The opening of the website followed years of the command's "revitalization" campaign marked notably by its assignment of a non-American officer to its once U.S.-dominated deputy chief post.

The campaign has spawned a flurry of speculation, with some analysts assuming the U.S. might intend to use the command to enhance its military influence over the peninsula as Seoul pushes to retake wartime operational control from Washington.

Others raised speculation Washington could take advantage of the long-standing multinational military command to preserve the U.S.-led regional security order being challenged by an assertive China.

Last year, then UNC Commander Robert Abrams brushed aside such speculation, saying his command is "not a warfighting headquarters."

"There is no plan. There's no secret plan for the UNC to somehow be a warfighting or operational headquarters in the future," he said.

Observers, however, took the remarks with a grain of salt, predicting the UNC could possibly morph into a key battle organ in the event of a contingency on the peninsula, with its rear bases in Japan designed to provide vital logistics support for wartime operations.

Analysts also raised the possibility even if the Korean War is declared over, the UNC could stay here as a multinational force to ensure peace on the peninsula, possibly under a new name dissociated from the U.N.

Amid varying assumptions, Lee Ki-beom, a professor at Yonsei University Law School, pointed out the need for Seoul to participate in the UNC to have its voice heard more.

sshluck@yna.co.kr
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