I was on vacation for the Sin Son Ho press conference, but followed the coverage. Unfortunately, reporting on the event focused almost entirely on Sin’s answers to reporters’ questions. Virtually none of it addressed the subject of Sin’s half hour soliloquy—available on UN Web TV–namely the dissolution of the UN Command. Sin’s performance is a classic exemplar of North Korean misdirection mixed with a highly-refined legalism.
Sin’s history of the UNC begins inauspiciously: “On June 25, 1950 the United States instigated South Korea to start a full-scale military invasion of the DPRK.” All else, of course, follows: the UN Command was and is nothing more than an instrument of US aggression.
However, Sin is right at one level: the way in which the Korean crisis was managed sought to cloak the action of US and its allies in a UN flag in a way that was legally and practically confusing; Patrick Norton’s 1997 summary of the legal issues for Nautilus still provides one of the cleanest summaries of the issues. Among the many legal problems of how the crisis was managed:\
- The rules governing the Security Council, and particularly the P5 veto, were designed to assure that neither of the superpowers would use the organ for purposes to which the other did not agree. If that meant stalemate, so be it. Resolutions 82, 83 and 84 were passed while the Soviet Union was boycotting the institution for its failure to recognize the PRC, however, thus violating the spirit of the institution.
- When the Soviets realized their mistake and returned to veto all action with respect to the conflict, the US concocted a “Uniting for Peace” process through the UN General Assembly that has absolutely no legal foundation in the Charter that we can see. Moreover, as Colum Lynch pointed out in calling UNSC 82 one of the worst UNSC resolutions of all time, the Uniting for Peace model was subsequently used against US interests by opening a special session on the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
- Chapter VII of the UN Charter outlines procedures for organizing military forces that can properly be called UN forces, and these included—unrealistically—both dedicated UN forces (Article 43) and those of member states. UNSC 84 authorized a “unified command under the United States,” which the US interpreted as being a force entirely under its sovereign control; 15 countries subsequently contributed to it. But in a confusing sleight of hand, the US subsequently created a “UN Command” which sometimes appeared in organization charts as superordinate to the Unified Command and US commands, but which for all intents and purposes was subordinate to the US general which headed it.
- These arrangements had ramifications for US-South Korea relations as well. During the conflict, South Korea placed operational control (OPCON) of its military forces under UN Command. As South Korea’s military capabilities matured, this made less and less sense and in 1978 the two countries created a Combined Forces Command (CFC), which for all practical—although not legal—purposes superseded the UN Command. In 1994, peacetime OPCON was returned to the ROK; in 2015, OPCON in both peace and wartime is scheduled to return to the ROK.
Sin has a field day with these legal complexities, noting that the UN Command was never really an instrument of the UN at all, and citing chapter and verse of statements and letters by a succession of Secretary Generals that were forced to acknowledge the legal ambiguities of the UNC. Sin concludes that the UN Command is an anachronism that should be dissolved, a component of its proposal to move toward a peace regime.
There is, however, a realist interpretation of events that is much more straightforward. The US responded to a surprise attack on an ally by mobilizing a coalition of forces against the aggressor; the UN was a sideshow. The US sought briefly to achieve total victory, but was deterred from that objective by the entry of Chinese forces, which sought to achieve the same defensive and deterrent effect with respect to its ally as the US had sought with respect to its. The US has stayed engaged in the peninsula to the extent it has because of ongoing North Korean threats to peace and security on the peninsula, and a modicum of stability has in fact prevailed as a result (see our arguments to this effect here and here). That stability does not have to do with the institutional features of the armistice such as the Military Armistice Command, which the North Koreans in fact has sought to undermine since 1991; recall that the North Koreans have repeatedly “withdrawn” from the armistice. Stability has come from mutual deterrence. Replacing the armistice with a peace regime—or dissolving the UN command—are thus also ultimately sideshows unless they have the material effect of reducing risks on the peninsula. What evidence do we have in that regard given North Korea’s commitment to continue with its present strategic course?