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Major General Urs Gerber shares his experience at the Korean Demilitarized Zone

On July 3, DCAF Asia-Pacific and Latin American and the Caribbean Units invited the honorable former Swiss Major General Urs Gerber to share his experiences as former Head of the Swiss Delegation to the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC). He discussed the current issues and challenges of the Korean Peninsula with DCAF staff and invited guests.

From 2012 to 2017, Swiss Major General Urs Gerber served at the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) as Head of the Swiss Delegation to the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC). Major General Gerber first joined the Swiss Ministry of Defense as an intelligence officer. He was later in charge of the Swiss Armed Forces’ security cooperation with Euro-Atlantic states as Head of the Euro-Atlantic Security Co-operation Division and rose to the rank of Deputy Director of the International Relations Directorate of the Swiss Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defense. In 2011 he was promoted to Major General to take over the Swiss Delegation to the NNSC in 2012. In his various capacities, Major General Gerber worked closely with counterparts from the UN, the OSCE, and NATO.

One of the minor accomplishments of the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement, which ended the hostilities in Korea between the United Nations Command (UNC) and the North Korean/Chinese armed forces, was to carve out a four-kilometer-wide DMZ at the Peninsula’s midpoint to serve as a buffer zone and to keep the belligerents safely apart. A Military Demarcation Line divides the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The two- kilometer line works as a buffer zone to prevent the occurrence of incidents which might lead to a resumption of hostilities. In 1950, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution which appointed the United States as its executive agent to appoint a commander of a unified command under the UN banner to assist the ROK in repelling an attack and to restore international peace and security.

Gerber started his presentation by talking about how the Korean Peninsula struggles for stability and peace. He shared with the audience the role of the United Nations in the Korean war and the inter-Korean relations. Following the United Nations Security Council Resolutions 82, 83, and 84 of 1950, the UN became a participant to the war through the U.S. led UN command. A neutral body was therefore needed in order to oversee the Korean Armistice Agreement signed in 1953 that formalized the cessation of hostilities of the Korean War It was in this context, as Gerber explained, that the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) was established. According to the Armistice, the NNSC should be composed of four senior officers, two of whom shall be appointed by neutral nations nominated by the United Nations Command (UNC) and two of whom shall be appointed by neutral nations nominated jointly by the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and the Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV). The term “neutral nations” was defined as those nations whose combat forces did not participate in the hostilities in Korea. The UNC chose Switzerland and Sweden, while the Korean People’s Army and Chinese People’s Volunteers chose the Czech Republic, former Czechoslovakia, and Poland. These four nations did not participate in any 20th-century wars.

The NNSC has played a pivotal role in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) portraying a mix of diplomacy, continuity, and ritual. The NNSC supports the peace structure and shows the North and South Koreans that the mechanisms of the armistice agreement are still in place. Besides, the NNSC was mandated to supervise, inspect, observe and investigate activities outside the DMZ. The Swiss presence in the DMZ demonstrates that Switzerland is recognized as a neutral and impartial intermediary. The areas north and south of the DMZ are heavily fortified, and both sides maintain large contingents of troops there. Throughout the years there have been occasional incidents and minor skirmishes but no significant conflicts.

The NNSC’s mission has been drastically reduced, especially after the end of the cold war. DPRK has refused to recognize the NNSC’s existence since 1995 – to the extent that the neutral nature of the Commission been called into question. Today, the NNSC it is the only authority monitoring the activities of the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC) run by the United States.

As for South Korea, Gerber elaborated that the country is as isolated as an island which can be only reached by sea or by air, not by land. Moreover, Gerber compared DPRK with a black hole. Nobody can penetrate it without getting caught. Besides, there are thousands of people studying the North Korea issue, but nobody actually knows what happens inside of it, it is a “terra incognita.” Nobody could prevent what has happened or the upcoming events.

Gerber also talked about the natural beauty in the DMZ. Due to the depopulated area aimed to create a buffer zone between the two countries, the DMZ created a haven for wildlife, including more than 60 of the world’s most endangered species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects. When people had to move out, nature moved in to recolonize it. Without any human intervention, the DMZ became a wildlife sanctuary with more approximately 1,000,000 mines scattered throughout the area. A United Nations Command report has now revealed that the landmines have also been planted near the ‘truce village’ of Panmunjom, which is controlled by the two Koreas and the US.

For the current situation and the future, Gerber analyzes the region, suggesting there is no tangible collective security architecture. It is the fastest growing part of the global economy, and there are many interests in the region. Gerber posits that both Koreas are living a honeymoon stage, and the role of the NNSC will keep being relevant. The president of ROK got in contact with the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, to ask the UN support in overseeing the announced closure of the North’s nuclear test site and in transforming the demilitarized zone between the two countries into a “peace zone,” as outlined in the Panmunjom accord signed by the ROK and DPRK.

This blog post was written by Patricia Zanini Graca. Patricia is a first-year graduate student at Seton Hall’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Patricia graduated in Business Administration and she holds an MBA in Business and Marketing. Patricia is a UN Digital Representative at the Center for UN and Global Governance Studies, a Social Media Associate at the Journal of Diplomacy, and and the director of International Affairs at the Graduate Diplomacy Council. She specializes in International Organizations and Global Negotiations & Conflict Management. 


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