UN Command States Pledge Support for South Korea

December 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

Top defense officials from 18 countries condemned North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and pledged to respond jointly to any attack that threatens South Korea’s security.

U.S. Army Chief of Staff General James McConville (C, front) at the military demarcation line separating North Korea and South Korea in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in May. Top defense officials from 18 countries that are part of the UN Command monitoring the DMZ recently pledged to respond jointly to any attack that threatens South Korean security.  (Photo by Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)In a Nov. 14 statement, the states said that they “will be united upon any renewal of hostilities or armed attack on the Korean peninsula” that challenges UN principles and the security of South Korea.

The 18 states were South Korea and 17 of the 22 member states that contribute military personnel to the UN Command, the multilateral forces established by the UN Security Council in 1950 to restore peace on the Korean peninsula. The UN Command continues to monitor the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea and enforce the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War.

South Korea is not a member of the UN Command, and the Nov. 14 meeting in Seoul was the first high-level defense meeting between UN Command members and South Korea. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol prioritized holding this meeting as part of his strategy to bolster South Korea’s defense against North Korea.

In a speech opening the meeting, South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik said that if “North Korea again commits an illegal invasion of the South,” it would be a “serious act of betrayal” against the United Nations and “inevitably lead to strong punishment” by the UN Command and the international community.

He said that any country that assists North Korea in an attack “will face the same punishment.”

According to the joint statement, the officials also discussed “the utility and necessity of dialogue” for achieving peace on the Korean peninsula and the important role that all UN member states must play in implementing Security Council resolutions targeting North Korea’s illicit nuclear and missile programs.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin participated in the meeting and said in a keynote speech that the UN Command “helps maintain deterrence by assuring that we can sustain our forces” in the event of a conflict.

Austin noted that since the UN Command was created, there have been “major changes in the regional security environment,” including North Korea’s nuclear, missile, and cybercapabilities, and that the “shared commitment to the defense” of South Korea remains vital. He also expressed concern that Russia and China are helping North Korea evade sanctions and expand its military capabilities.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry called for the dissolution of the UN Command and referred to the body as
a “U.S.-led multinational war tool” that endangers the “security in the Asia-Pacific region.”

In a Nov. 13 statement published by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the Foreign Ministry said the meeting proves that the United States plans to “occupy the whole Korean peninsula by force of arms” and is creating the conditions “for igniting the second Korean war.”

Prior to the UN Command meeting, Austin met with Shin to discuss the South Korean-U.S. alliance. The U.S. Defense Department said in a Nov. 13 press release that Austin and Shin agreed on three key priorities for the future: deterring strategic attacks, modernizing South Korean and U.S. capabilities to strengthen the “combined defense architecture of the alliance,” and strengthening security cooperation with partners in the region.

Austin and Shin also updated the 2013 Tailored Deterrence Strategy, which outlines U.S. extended nuclear deterrence commitments to South Korea.

According to Shin, the revisions are necessary to take into account North Korea’s advances over the past decade. He said the document outlines how South Korea will provide conventional assistance to support U.S. nuclear operations and states that the United States will use its full range of conventional and nuclear capabilities to defend Seoul from a nuclear attack by Pyongyang.

In a press conference following the meeting, Austin also said the United States will use its “full range of nuclear, conventional, and missile defense capabilities” to defend South Korea and that the recent deployment of U.S. strategic assets to the region demonstrates the “ironclad” U.S. commitment to South Korea. He said the United States is now “more forward deployed and more capable to respond.”

The North Korean National Defense Ministry said in a Nov. 16 statement in KCNA that the new deterrence strategy is “aimed at a preemptive nuclear strike” on North Korea and accused the United States of aggravating tensions by bringing strategic assets to the region.

Austin and Shin also met virtually with Japanese Defense Minister Mioru Kihara. Shin said the three countries discussed a previous commitment to share information about North Korean missile launches in real time and agreed to activate the mechanism to enable the information sharing in December.

The launch of the mechanism will enhance the “detection and assessment capabilities” of all three countries, according to a South Korean Defense Ministry statement.

Austin’s visit followed a joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise on Oct. 25 aimed at responding to “Hamas-style surprise artillery attacks,” referring to the Oct. 7 terrorist attack where Hamas fighters crossed into Israel and killed an estimated 1,200 people, mostly civilians.

The three-day drill was aimed at detecting a surprise attack and preemptively striking North Korea’s long-range artillery, which can target Seoul.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also traveled to Seoul in November. After meeting South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin, Blinken said that the military relationship between Moscow and Pyongyang is “growing and dangerous” and that Washington will continue to track and expose military transfers between the two countries. In October, the Biden administration accused North Korea of shipping military equipment and munitions to Russia. (See ACT, November 2023.)

In a Nov. 11 statement in KCNA, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said that the United States should become “accustomed to the new reality” of North Korean-Russian relations, which “will steadily grow stronger.”

The statement said that if the United States is concerned about the relationship, it should “abandon the hostile policy toward the two countries” and “withdraw political provocations, military threats and strategic pressure” directed at North Korea and Russia.

One area where North Korea expressed interest in Russian assistance involves satellite launches. After failed launches in May and August, North Korea attempted to put a military reconnaissance satellite into orbit on Nov. 21 using the Chollima-1 space launch vehicle.

KCNA described the satellite launch as a success in a Nov. 22 statement and said that North Korea now has “eyes overlooking a long distance.”

The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed that the satellite entered orbit in a Nov. 22 press release but said it is too soon to say if it is functional.

It is unclear the extent to which Russia assisted North Korea with that launch.