|Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, United Nations Command and Combined Forces Command / Korea Times file|
By Kang Seung-woo
A feud between the government and the United Nations Command (UNC) seems to be intensifying as the former has complained of a series of recent decisions by the command regarding inter-Korean issues.
Some critics, including senior government officials, say the U.S.-led UNC, which administers the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), has overstepped its authority regarding the Moon Jae-in administration's peace initiatives on the Korean Peninsula as part of efforts to maintain its presence here.
The latest friction occurred, Tuesday, after the UNC concluded that both South and North Korea violated the Armistice Agreement when they gunfire was exchanged inside the DMZ, May 3, adding that it was unable to determine whether North Korean soldiers fired intentionally or by mistake.
The findings are in stark contrast to the Ministry of National Defense's conclusion that the shots fired by North Korean troops across the border were accidental, a stance later echoed by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. As a result, the ministry expressed regret over the UNC's findings immediately after its announcement, saying in a press statement that the command reached its conclusion without a practical investigation of the gunfire from the North.
Many believe that the defense ministry statement was a show of displeasure by the Moon administration toward the UNC which it accuses of being "picky" about Seoul's push for inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation.
In August 2018, the UNC disapproved of the government's plan to carry out a joint survey of cross-border railways that required moving necessary equipment across the DMZ, citing procedural problems.
At the time, the rejection raised speculation that Washington was displeased with a possible violation of international sanctions ― although it later granted an exemption for the project.
In response, Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul told the National Assembly in October 2019 that there should be improvements to regulations with regard to movements in the DMZ of a non-military nature.
"Under the Armistice Agreement, the right for permission is confined to things of a military character," Kim noted.
Kim was not alone in questioning UNC involvement in inter-Korean affairs.
Former presidential chief of staff Im Jong-seok said in a recent interview with a local magazine that the UNC was trying to exceed its authority.
"The command has to do only what it has to do over entry into and exits from the DMZ and passage over the MDL, but it is acting like it has special rights. This needs to be fixed as soon as possible," he said.
Moon Chung-in, the special security adviser to President Moon, also said in a media interview, last September, that the UNC was the "biggest barrier" to improving inter-Korean relations.
"The UNC blocks North-South Korean transactions across the DMZ. According to the Armistice Agreement, it only has to administer the DMZ and the MDL. Should it continue doing so, South Korean people may have antipathy toward the command," he said.
Diplomatic experts believe the feud between the government and the UNC may deepen.
"There is ample room for the tensions to develop," said Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University.
"There are two reasons. One is the government's thinking that it can bypass the UNC in handling non-military inter-Korean issues. The other is the U.S. trying to strengthen the UNC in order to maintain its authority over military maneuvers on the peninsula after transferring wartime operational control of South Korean troops from the U.S. to the South."
The UNC is headed by the U.S. Forces Korea commander and operates at the direction of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.