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Why the UN belongs at the heart of Korea's DMZ

On Oct. 31, at a conference in the United Nations' center in Geneva, a low-key delegation from South Korea unveiled details of an ambitious plan.

     There were no high-powered officials or ranks of press cameras to mark the event, although the presentation had been signaled two days earlier by a veteran South Korean official, Chung Chong-wook, vice chairman of the Presidential Committee for Unification Preparation.

     "This will become a very symbolic monument toward peace in the world," he said in an interview with The Korea Times, "as well as on the Korean Peninsula."

     The proposal by South Korea is to build a large regional U.N. complex inside the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea. It would be known as the Asian U.N. headquarters, the organization's fifth such office. Although the U.N. has many regional centers, such as those in Bangkok and Addis Ababa, there are only four designated headquarters -- in New York, Geneva, Vienna, and Nairobi.

     The Korean War was the first major conflict where U.S., British and soldiers of other nationalities fought under U.N. command. South Korean troops currently deployed to the Panmunjon Truce Village, or Joint Security Area, in the DMZ are attached to the U.N. Command Security Battalion.

     South Korea argues that the U.N. has a historical involvement in the conflict that should now be expanded.

     The proposal for a fifth U.N. headquarters to be located in the DMZ was first raised informally by South Korea's President Park Guen-hye at the U.N. General Assembly in September. A more detailed proposal was presented by provincial and city officials at the one-day peace and security conference in Geneva.

     "There are a number of critical issues in Asia that should be dealt with through the U.N.," Byeong Cheol Mun of Seoul National University told the audience. "Fifty four U.N. member states are located on the Asian continent, which, with 4.5 billion people, has 60% of the world's population. The U.N. would contribute to disarmament in Asia, [to] peace-building, and it could also be a turning point for peace on the Korean Peninsula."

But could the idea work?

In recent weeks, the government of North Korea has been overtly yet tentatively exploring how it might emerge from its latest cycle of isolation. Officials of the secretive regime have been giving interviews to Asian and Western media. Others made a surprise visit to South Korea to celebrate the Asian Games. Two Americans were freed from detention in Pyongyang, where they were being held on spying charges, after U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper flew to the North Korean capital for secret talks.

     In the ebb and flow of Korean tensions, none of this breaks new ground. Intractable issues have been in place since the 1953 truce that ended the Korean war. But, as pressure for change grows, the status quo looks increasingly unsustainable.

     The North Korean regime is brittle, with a young, untested and unpredictable leader who has no natural successor. The regime's sudden collapse could spark a global military and human catastrophe. The key powers -- China and the U.S. -- are well aware of the issues, but have barely discussed them and have no joint plan to deal with a crisis. North Korea remains in denial about its lack of long-term viability.

     An Asian U.N. headquarters in the DMZ could serve to coax Pyongyang from its isolation without feeling it has been defeated. It would cast so far insoluble disputes, such as the future of its nuclear weapons program, into the context of a much broader basket of issues as diplomats in the DMZ dealt with problems ranging from Myanmar to Kashmir. It would also establish a neutral and permanent venue for negotiations on other regional issues, such as conflicting sovereignty claims in the South and East China seas, and border disputes between India and China.

     Pyongyang and Seoul would be joint hosts. Building and design work would be carried out by both sides. Initially, the project would be managed like the quietly successful and jointly-run Kaesong Industrial Complex, where North Koreans work in factories under mainly South Korean management.

     There is a high risk that the idea would fail to get off the ground, which is why its rollout has been so carefully thought through. The Geneva conference delegation was deliberately low-key, with officials coming from specific areas adjoining the part of the DMZ where the complex would be built -- Gyeonggi Province and Paju City, both in South Korea. They provided practical details, while broader advocacy was delivered by South Korean academics.

     The plan is to build the new U.N. office on the western edge of the 250km long DMZ, just north of Paju City. It would be 50km from Seoul and 200km from Pyongyang. The Kaisong Industrial Complex would be just 8km away.

     Architectural sketches show a large complex with a prominent central U.N. headquarters building. South Korea suggests that one of the U.N. agencies to based there should be the Office for Disarmament Affairs, currently based in New York with a small regional office in Nepal.

     The building could significantly raise the profile of significant issues such as the Asian arms race -- regional arms spending of $287 billion exceeded that of Europe for the first time in 2012, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The total was up almost 5% on the previous year -- and more than 8% for China alone.

     No formal approach has yet been made to the U.N., but that does not mean the plan will be relegated to the bulging in-tray of U.N. development and security plans.

     First, South Korea has a track record of getting things done. It turned a dictatorship in the 1950s into a fully fledged democracy where citizens have a high standard of living. It has built multinational corporations that are today global household names. It has kept the peace with North Korea for more than 60 years.

     Second, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is a former South Korean foreign minister who has a close relationship with President Park. In office since 2007, Ban is more than halfway through his second and final term, which ends in 2016. The secretary-general is thought to have his eye on the 2018 South Korean presidential election, when many issues on the Korean Peninsula may come to a head. Analysts say it is highly unlikely the initiative would have been launched without Ban's tacit support.

     "Asia is a fast-growing region, but plagued by regional conflict and territorial disputes," says Ellen Kim at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "An Asian U.N. headquarters makes sense, but whether it can be set up on what is essentially land of a Cold War frozen conflict is another issue."

     Some diplomats remain skeptical, noting that Asia, stretching from Turkey to Japan, has far different complications than Africa, which gained its own U.N. headquarters in 1996. Also, Asian disputes are different in many ways from those between the overwhelmingly fragile African states with which the U.N. routinely deals. More substantive global powers such as China, Japan and India are involved, and their national wills have far more muscle than the U.N.

     "It will need a lot of lobbying and a positive response," warns John Svenson-Wright of Britain's Chatham House think tank. "But tentatively it could work."

     South Korea plans to begin talks on the U.N. issue with the North within the next few months. Officials say the government is happy to fund the complex -- probably not directly, but through an increase in its overall subscription to the U.N.

     Whatever the final bill, it is likely to be much lower than the cost of unifying the two Koreas, or of a sudden collapse of the North Korean regime. It would, of course, be a miniscule sum compared with the cost of another war on the peninsula.

Humphrey Hawksley, a BBC correspondent, has reported extensively from Asia. His book 'The Third World War' is published by Macmillan.

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