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Trump-Kim Summit

Push for Korean peace throws fate of UN forces into doubt

American-led command largely symbolic but still relevant to global cooperation

United Nations Command honor guards at a ceremony for the 64th anniversary of the Korean armistice on July 27, 2017. While mainly symbolic at this point, the force nevertheless represents international cooperation on the North Korean issue.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- With a formal end to the Korean War now seen as a possibility, the fate of United Nations forces in South Korea and Japan has come under the spotlight.

At a historic summit in Singapore on June 12, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed on the complete denuclearization of Korean Peninsula. However, Trump did not insist on an official end to the Korean War, as some had expected.

Yet Trump did express a readiness to cease joint military exercises with South Korea, a prospect that may raise the question whether UN forces are needed on the peninsula. 

United Nations Command was launched in response to the war's outbreak in June 1950. It is currently headquartered in Seoul, led by U.S. Forces Korea commander Vincent Brooks. Eighteen countries, including Australia, Canada, South Korea and the U.K., would contribute troops should the Korean War flare up again.

But the UNC currently exists mostly in name, a Japanese defense official said. The U.S. was always the main player, and American troops in South Korea now essentially double as the U.N. force. Even if the UNC is abolished, the American presence on the peninsula would remain.

Despite being the only command in the world with "UN" in its name, the UNC is not exactly the kind of military force envisioned in the organization's charter. The U.N. is permitted to take military action "to maintain or restore international peace and security" should economic and diplomatic measures fall short. Under the framework, U.N. members would contribute troops to this joint force under a special agreement, to be commanded by the chiefs of staff of permanent members of the Security Council.

But the decision to send forces to the Korean Peninsula was made amid Soviet boycotts. The UNC was controlled in effect by the U.S., rather than by the entire council. No truly U.N.-wide force has ever been assembled.

The UNC was originally headquartered in Tokyo. It moved to Seoul in 1957 after the armistice between the two Koreas. A small section remained in Japan as the UNC-Rear, first at Camp Zama then at Yokota Air Base, both U.S. bases, amid increased coordination with the American forces there. It now consists of four officers, including its commander and Australian Air Force Capt. Adam Williams, who would help send more troops to the Korean Peninsula in the case of an emergency. It is permitted the use of seven American military bases in Japan.

The UNC is still relevant today. For example, it monitors North Korean vessels for cargo transfers on the high seas that violate international sanctions. Australia and Canada launched joint air patrols at the end of April using the U.S. military's Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. "This is symbolically significant, as it shows we are working together under the U.N. flag," a Japanese Foreign Ministry official said.

An official end to the Korean War would mean an end to the UNC. Under the command's Status of Forces Agreement with the Japanese government, UNC-Rear must leave the country within 90 days of the main force withdrawing from South Korea. But it is unclear when or how that would happen. The Japanese Foreign Ministry believes an international debate on the issue is needed.

Many within the Japanese government see a UNC withdrawal as having little actual effect. But forces from countries other than the U.S. would have a harder time using American bases in Japan, which could impact multilateral cooperation in the region.

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