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(Yonhap Feature) U.N. Command revs up revitalization campaign amid Korea peace efforts

2018/09/05 09:00

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By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Sept. 5 (Yonhap) -- The U.S.-led United Nations Command (UNC) is pushing its "revitalization" campaign amid diplomacy for peace with North Korea, stoking speculation about its intentions and ultimate goal.

Since 2014, the enforcer of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War has been strengthening its staff by securing more contributions from its member states and having senior officials dedicated exclusively to their UNC roles rather than taking other responsibilities.

The campaign has been picking up pace amid intensifying Sino-U.S. rivalry, talks for Washington's envisioned transfer of wartime operational control to Seoul and efforts for a lasting peace regime on the peninsula that could render the UNC obsolete.

Analysts said that the initiative appears aimed at ensuring the UNC's readiness for military contingencies, enhancing America's influence over the peninsula or preserving the U.S-led regional security order challenged by an assertive China.

As part of the revitalization drive, the UNC inaugurated Canadian Lt. Gen. Wayne D. Eyre as its deputy commander in July. It was the first time in its 68-year history that a non-American has been appointed to the post, which had been dominated by U.S. officers -- most recently Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Bergeson, the former chief of the 7th Air Force who doubled as the deputy chief of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK).

This photo, taken July 30, 2018, shows Lieut. Gen. Wayne D. Eyre, the deputy commander of the United Nations Command, speaking during a change-of-responsibility ceremony at Camp Humphreys, a sprawling U.S. military complex in Pyeongtaek, 70 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap) This photo, taken July 30, 2018, shows Lieut. Gen. Wayne D. Eyre, the deputy commander of the United Nations Command, speaking during a change-of-responsibility ceremony at Camp Humphreys, a sprawling U.S. military complex in Pyeongtaek, 70 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)

Last month, the UNC also appointed a two-star U.S. Army general as its new chief of staff to work exclusively for the UNC, whereas his predecessors wore other hats, such as that of USFK chief of staff.

The revitalization push has led to an increase in the number of personnel from the 16 "sending states" that provided combat forces to fight alongside South Korean troops under the U.N. banner during the Cold War conflict.

Canada plans to increase its UNC staff from the six it had earlier this year to 16, including one in the UNC Rear Command in Japan. New Zealand has contributed five officers since 2015 and added a sixth in late 2017.

Australia, which has filled the colonel-level commander post in the UNC Rear since 2010, has had a one-star officer in the command since 2015. It also has its defense attache serving as a liaison officer to the UNC.

Britain, which had no officer working exclusively in the UNC until 2014, put two officers in permanent staff positions in 2015 and increased that to three last year.

"UNC Revitalization began in the spring of 2014 to build partner capacity and cooperation as UNC maintains stability and peace in Korea by employing multinational forces of the sending states," a UNC official told Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity.

"The institution of a Canadian general as the UNC deputy is a visible example of UNC's multinationalism," the official added.

At the height of the Korean War, the UNC, anchored in a 1950 U.N. mandate to respond to the North's "breach of peace," was an overarching war-fighting institution to defend South Korea against Pyongyang's aggression and communist expansion. The peak UNC troop strength in 1953 was 932,964, including 302,483 U.S. troops.

But its role was reduced to overseeing the armistice after its operational control over South Korean troops was handed to the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) in 1978. The CFC is led by a four-star U.S. general, currently Gen. Vincent Brooks, who also heads the UNC and USFK.

This photo, taken Aug. 22, 2018, shows U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks speaks during a press conference in Seoul. (Yonhap) This photo, taken Aug. 22, 2018, shows U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks speaks during a press conference in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Given that the revitalization initiative began amid Pyongyang's evolving nuclear threats, observers have said that it might aim to show international solidarity for peace and signal that the multilateral platform remains capable to fight should diplomacy fail.

"The North Korea problem has always been an international responsibility, and through the UNC, many nations can contribute to peace-building," said Patrick M. Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program of the Washington-based think tank Center for a New American Security.

"At the same time, the U.S. wants to neutralize Pyongyang's divide-and-conquer tactics by making it clear the world and not just the U.S., or South Korea, or Japan, is unified on the need for complete denuclearization and a just peace," he added.

Cronin went on to say, "Perhaps, the main argument in favor of revitalizing the UNC is to ensure that the U.S. retains an indirect but clear legal basis for action on the peninsula should diplomacy melt down and conflict re-emerge."

   The revitalization efforts coincided with Seoul's push to retake wartime operational control (OPCON) from Washington, a transition under which South Korea will lead the allied forces in combat, with the U.S. playing a supporting role.

Seoul and Washington have been discussing the "conditions-based" transfer in consideration of South Korean troops' combat capabilities and the security environment long defined by the North's nuclear and missile threats.

Observers said that the OPCON transfer is bound to shrink the U.S.' wartime control over South Korean troops -- a prospect that might have caused Washington to seek a parallel institution to continue its military influence here.

"There have been reasonable doubts that the U.S. may want to use the UNC to maintain its control over South Korean battle forces after Seoul regains the OPCON to be able to maneuver independently," a security expert said on condition of anonymity.

In the context of the Sino-U.S. competition for regional primacy, speculation has been rising that Washington, from a long-term perspective, could seek to transform the UNC into a multilateral regional security architecture consisting of its allies and partner countries.

The revitalization drive took shape as China was seen beefing up its military and taking an increasingly assertive foreign policy stance, particularly on its territorial claims to the lion's share of the strategically crucial South China Sea.

Washington has apparently sought to counter China's persistent maritime claims by conducting "freedom of navigation" operations in open seas, which the U.S. has called part of the "global commons."

   The UNC initiative also came as Chinese leader Xi Jinping called in 2014 for the creation of a new regional security framework, stressing that Asian nations should be capable of solving their own security issues.

"Given that it would be difficult to establish a new institution akin to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization due to the possibility of China's strong resistance, the U.S. could use the existing apparatus, namely the UNC, to create an architecture to foster a regional security order that would redound to the U.S. interests," a foreign policy expert said on condition of anonymity.

The revitalization endeavors may also reflect concerns that the rationale for the UNC operations on the peninsula could evaporate should there be a peace treaty to replace the armistice agreement.

Seoul and Pyongyang have been pushing for the political declaration of a formal end to the Korean War, apparently with an eye to ultimately supplanting the truce arrangement with a peace regime.

Washington, however, is calling for the communist state to take tangible denuclearization steps, such as a full declaration of its nuclear and missile stockpiles, before earnest discussions on the end-of-war declaration.

"The North has been demanding the declaration of an end to the war. ... It is partly to show why the UNC should exist after the war was declared to have ended," said Kim Youl-soo, a foreign policy expert based in Seoul.

"But when denuclearization negotiations are deadlocked, the UNC is still needed. ... The UNC appears (to be revitalizing itself) to prepare (for a contingency) and show that it would not be disarmed when North Korean threats have yet to dissipate," he added.

This image, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows U.S. troops. (Yonhap) This image, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows U.S. troops. (Yonhap)

sshluck@yna.co.kr

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