On January 16, Canada hosted the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability of the Korean Peninsula. There, representatives from 20 nations gathered to discuss the North Korean threat, and with only one exception (India), each of the nations shared a common thread: United Nations Command (UNC). Sixteen of the twenty were active members of UNC (fifteen “Sending States” and the Republic of Korea), with Italy present as an inactive signatory to the charter. Sweden represented the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, a counterpart organization to UNC’s armistice commission responsible for administered armistice arrangements for the allied powers. Finally, there was Japan who, unbeknownst to many, is an integral component of UNC operations.
The Japanese government provides support to UNC’s rear area headquarters (the aptly named UNC-Rear), but lack of public recognition belies the utility of this security arrangement. With relative obscurity owing in part to UNC-Rear’s small size, the headquarters maintains a small cadre of staff but an outsized role when it comes to the North Korean threat. Representing UNC and 9 of its member-states, UNC-Rear serves critical peacetime and contingency functions in Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) management, government advocacy, and, when the situation demands, operational execution of SOFA privileges.
Through these functions, the relationship between UNC and Japan has played a consistently important, albeit unheralded, role over the years. Still, with an increasingly dangerous North Korean regime in place, the Abe administration’s renewed call for multilateral responses, and the Japanese government’s willingness to implement proactive security policies, the Japan-UNC relationship becomes ever-more relevant, both in existing functions and in new areas of cooperation vis-a-vis the North Korean threat.
Background on United Nations Command and UNC-Rear
United Nations Command is a multinational military organization formed to respond to North Korean aggression. Through a series of resolutions (UNSCR 82, 83, and 84) following the North Korean attack on South Korea on June 25, 1950, the UN Security Council called for member states to respond militarily to repel the North’s attack and formed a unified command under U.S. leadership. This unified command would be authorized to fly the UN Flag, and so sixteen nations (known as the “Sending States”) fought under UN auspices against North Korea and Communist China until reaching stalemate. When the shooting stopped, UNC remained a core element of armistice, and still exists to maintain peace on the peninsula today. Through it all, the UNC element in Japan served an important role.
Certainly, UNC’s mission is on the Korean peninsula, but the sending states needed to flow into Korea from somewhere, and they still will if armistice fails and hostilities resume. Japan provided and continues to offer that critical rear area function for UN forces. This relationship was formalized through an exchange-of-notes in conjunction with the San Francisco Peace Treaty, and over 65 years later, there remain 9 nations that are active signatories to the UN-Japan SOFA: Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States (though the United States has its own SOFA with Japan that takes precedence).
Originally based in Japan with its commander, UNC headquarters moved forward to Korea in 1956, leaving UNC-Rear in its place. In peacetime, UNC-Rear has a small element at Yokota Air Base in Tokyo, with an Australian Group Captain (O-6, Colonel-equivalent) in command. Though there are only a handful of permanently assigned cadre, UNC-Rear’s numbers can swell in times of contingency. At their disposal are seven UN-flagged bases: (Ground component) Camp Zama; (Air component)Yokota Air Base, Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Kadena Air Base; and (Naval component) Sasebo Naval Base, White Beach Naval Base, and Yokosuka Naval Base.
UNC-Rear’s Functions in Japan
Japan offers myriad operational benefits for UNC forces responding to North Korean aggression, and it is UNC-Rear’s role to maintain, enhance, and coordinate them as required. Among other functions, UNC bases in Japan provide for rear area headquarters, logistics hubs, and intermediate staging areas for sending state forces flowing into the peninsula and noncombatant evacuees flowing out. UNC-Rear supports those functions through three key responsibilities:
1) Status of Forces Agreement Management
The UN-Japan SOFA mandates that the signatories must execute five responsibilities. First, UNC must maintain a presence in Japan, which UNC-Rear accomplishes with its headquarters at Yokota Air Base. Second, it must be a multinational force; i.e. staffed by members from multiple foreign militaries. To that end, UNC-Rear currently sources its commander from the Royal Australian Air Force and deputy from the Royal Canadian Air Force, but has also included members from Thailand, the Philippines, and other nations in the past. Third, UNC and Japan must mutually designate bases for UNC use and (fourth) those bases must fly the UN flag. Those requirements are fulfilled throughout Japan at the seven designated bases. Finally, the UNC sending states must exercise use of those bases in order to maintain UN-Japan SOFA status. UNC-Rear coordinates between the Japanese government and the nine sending states for port calls, exercises, and other operational functions that satisfy this final requirement.
2) Government Advocacy
Although UNC-Rear is hardly a lobby organization, the staff fulfills an ever-important role of advocating for UNC vis-a-vis the Japanese and South Korean governments. With direct counterparts in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UNC-Rear is able to communicate and coordinate requirements on behalf of the nine SOFA signatories with Japan while also serving as a conduit for relaying Japanese interests in coordination with its higher headquarters on the Korean peninsula. Additionally, UNC-Rear coordinates multiple trips a year for senior members of the South Korean military and National Assembly to visit UNC bases throughout Japan. Those tours serve as reminders of Japan’s critical role in the event of any contingency on the peninsula, which are vital in influencing decision-making that otherwise may seek to block cooperation with Japan for solely political reasons.
3) Operational Execution
Certainly, the lion’s share of UNC-Rear’s operational responsibilities emerge if armistice fails and war breaks out on the Korean peninsula, but UNC-Rear plays an active role in military exercises (both in Korea and in Japan) while also working with the Japanese government to respond to real world crises and events. A recent example was when the Canadian government negotiated the release of Hyeon Soo Lim. To get him home, the government flew him from Pyongyang to the UN-designated base at Yokota en route back to North America. Canada was only able to exercise this option because of its place within UNC and efforts between UNC-Rear and the Japanese government to exercise the UN-Japan SOFA.
For the past sixty years, Japan and UNC have maintained the aforementioned framework for their relationship, though they have begun to test the waters to determine how deep the well of untapped potential may be. In fact, that well is substantially deep. While there remain some Japanese constitutional limits on the type of integration it can enjoy with UNC, there are notable opportunities for the Japanese government to advance its operational and strategic interests through this relationship. Those opportunities include expanding the number of UN-designated bases in Japan (i.e. adding to the seven existing bases), incrementally increasing Japanese participation in UNC exercises, incorporating Japan in the UNC intelligence sharing framework, conducting joint planning with UNC member-states, and inviting international partners for military exercises in Japan under the auspices of the UN-Japan SOFA. These actions can yield four positive outcomes:
1) Strong, multinational strategic message in the face of North Korean provocations
The Abe administration has been a strong supporter of the U.S. pressure campaign against North Korea, but as evidenced once again in Abe’s orders to the NSC following the most recent ICBM launch, the Japanese government desires continued engagement with the international community on this problem. UNC ensures that military response to North Korea is a UN coalition responsibility, not just a Japanese, South Korean, or American problem, so increasing ties to and engagement with UNC and its member-states only serve to reinforce multilateralism.
2) A means for Japan and South Korea to improve operational security cooperation
It is well-documented that political obstacles to security cooperation remain between Japan and South Korea. Fortunately, the inclusion of up to 16 other countries can dull many of the sensitivities associated with strictly bilateral initiatives. Thus, the UNC conduit offers a more politically palatable menu of options for security cooperation between Japan and Korea. This includes involvement in UNC exercises, incorporation in intelligence sharing, as well as planning for contingencies such as noncombatant evacuation (a recent focus of Japanese planning efforts). Though the Korean military may still balk at these efforts, a critical point here is that the UNC Commander (also the Combined Forces Commander) in Korea is an American Army officer, and the U.S. clearly advocates for greater Japanese inclusion in these activities. Thus, use of the multinational UNC framework allows for interim progress towards Japan’s operational involvement in response to North Korean aggression until there is a political breakthrough in support of strictly bilateral or trilateral ties.
(3) Yield better force posture conditions for coalition forces should conflict break out on the peninsula
There are currently seven UN-designated bases in Japan: three airfields, three naval bases, and one army base. While relatively dormant in peacetime, in a North Korean contingency, the massive amount of forces flowing into and civilians out of the peninsula will no doubt generate a need for the Japanese government to increase capacity in the rear area. At minimal cost, the Abe administration can expand the number of UN designated bases in Japan now, simply by agreeing to reflag some of the existing U.S. bases. In doing so, Abe can send a strong strategic message to North Korea while increasing the capacity for Japan to support a multilateral response to DPRK aggression and opening up new opportunities to host training and exercises with the UNC sending states (the United Kingdom and Australia, in particular).
(4) Normalize operations between Japan and individual members of UN Command
In recent years, Japan has been pushing for closer security ties with Australia, the United Kingdom, and France, and those nations represent three of the nine signatories to the UN-Japan SOFA. Of note, Japan recently signed new Acquisitions and Cross-Servicing Agreements (ACSA) on January 14th of last year with Australia and two weeks later with the United Kingdom, while reaching a broad agreement on the terms of an ACSA with France on January 26th of this year.
Further, Japan has been in the process of negotiating bilateral reciprocal access/visiting forces agreements with the United Kingdom and Australia, and is coordinating with France to boost military cooperation. In the interim, UNC and the UN SOFA with Japan allows those nations to send forces to Japan to execute operations that support the UNC mission. Thus, training and exercises that are aimed at North Korea would be within the scope of the agreement and offer a streamlined approach to exercise cooperation. As such, Japan could host those nations for exercises or other training, simultaneously showing international resolve against an increasingly dangerous DPRK regime while achieving progress in cooperation between Japan’s Self-Defense Force and its desired military partners.
Some of these initiatives are underway with Japanese government and UNC support, though increased recognition and backing from government players in Japan and among the relevant sending states is necessary to advance them even further. The Abe administration must also navigate the domestic political situation, which may see the public or opposition parties balk at this brand of multilateralism.
Still, as DPRK provocations continue and the Abe administration searches for new ways to posture against the rogue regime, the opportunities that UNC offers are likely to become more actionable. Of course, regardless how many of these initiatives Japan and UNC are able to realize, the existing functions as well as new areas of cooperation already underway that operate in response to North Korean provocations remind observers that this relationship remains ever-relevant in spite of its relative obscurity.
Michael Bosack is a Ph.D. Candidate at the International University of Japan's Graduate School of International Relations. Previously, he was the Deputy Chief of Government Relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces, Japan, where he was part of the team that drafted and implemented the 2015 Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation. Michael is a graduated Mansfield Fellow and military veteran with two tours to Afghanistan.