Updated: Feb 14, 2022
By Becky Coffield, HUSC Historian 2021-2022
United Nations Command carries on the legacy of the men and women of the twenty-two (22) countries who came to the aid of South Korea during the Korean War and in support of humanitarian efforts following the Armistice Agreement. The Command’s role evolved from a warfighting command to an international military organization charged with enforcing the Korean Armistice Agreement. Today, UNC consists of: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, the Republic of South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Republic of Korea, as the host nation. UNC remains a visible reminder of the international community’s enduring commitment to preserving peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Following the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement, UNC was responsible for enforcing the Armistice and defending South Korea. However, UNC’s mission and role evolved over time. On July 1, 1957, United States Forces Korea (USFK) was established with the mission of supporting UNC by providing trained and ready forces for the defense of South Korea. USFK also provided a myriad of Armistice maintenance functions. On November 8, 1978, the Republic of Korea (ROK) - U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) was established as a bilateral warfighting command. With the establishment of CFC, UNC’s role changed to Armistice maintenance, while CFC became responsible for deterrence and preparations for the defense of South Korea. UNC experienced a period of growth, relevance, and change, following its decline after the establishment of CFC. In the early 2000s, Armistice maintenance activities grew with the establishment of Transportation Corridors and South Korean military live fire exercises near the Northwest Islands. The increase in Armistice maintenance requirements contributed to renewed international interest in UNC, resulting in seven nations rejoining the command between 1998 and 2003. Recognizing UNC’s “untapped potential”, the UNC Commander announced UNC revitalization as an official command effort in 2015, driving the momentum for more international contributions. In 2018, Canada assigned the first non-American General Officer to serve in UNC, and Australia continued this trend in 2019 until present. Shortly after the relocation of UNC Headquarters from Seoul to Pyeongtaek in 2018, UNC revitalization ended. Despite this transition, the command continues to evolve to meet the dynamic challenges of the security environment on the Korean Peninsula. These challenges range from demonstrating international resolve and maintaining military readiness during heightened tensions to creating space for inter-Korean diplomacy. In fulfillment of the provisions of the Armistice and the Subsequent Agreement of August 17, 1954, UNC has continued to perform its duties related to the return of remains of deceased soldiers. From July 1996 to May 2005, the U.S. Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office conducted joint operations with the Korean People’s Army (KPA, official name of the North Korean Army) to recover Korean War remains in North Korea. Furthermore, the KPA had accepted remains of deceased soldiers, which had been recovered in the DMZ and the territorial waters of South Korea. UNC was willing to accept Korean War remains in Panmunjom, but the KPA suspended such returns in 1999. Following the thawing of inter-Korean relations in 2018, UNC transitioned its priority from heightened military readiness to creating space for diplomacy. Subsequently, North Korea and UNC established renewed dialogue and reached an agreement to facilitate the repatriation of Korean War remains. On July 27, 2018—the 65th anniversary of the Armistice signing at Panmunjom—UNC, with support from USFK, repatriated 55 cases of remains from North Korea. A U.S. cargo aircraft flew to Wonsan, North Korea to receive the remains and returned promptly to Osan Air Base, South Korea. On August 14, 2018, the UNC Honor Guard escorted the remains of a North Korean soldier across the Military Demarcation Line in Panmunjom. South Korean Naval Forces originally discovered the remains near the Northwest Islands in May 2017. Previous attempts to arrange the repatriation to North Korea failed, and the last time that North Korea returned the remains of fallen service members prior to 2018 was 2007. These exchanges were governed by the Korean Armistice Agreement signed in 1953, enforced by UNC in an effort to build trust among all nations on the Korean Peninsula. Once the premier warfighting command in Korea, UNC continues to evolve. Despite its evolution, UNC remains the home of international contributions, and the command remains steadfast in preserving peace in Korea, consistent with the Armistice Agreement and the UN mandates that remain in effect.
For more information visit the United Nations Command Website at www.unc.mil/History.
“Post 1953.” (www.unc.mil/History/Post-1953-Evolution-of-UNC/). October 7, 2021.