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Swiss engagement in Korea: The forgotten armistice

On 7 July 1953, the Federal Council authorised the Department of Defence to deploy military personnel armed for self-defence to join the NNRC (Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission) and the NNSC (Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission). This was the birth of Swiss peace promotion. 

In several stages over the course of the following months, 146 Swiss military personnel were deployed to Korea. The NNRC terminated its work at the end of February 1954, having completed its mission of facilitating the exchange of prisoners of war. The NNSC still exists to this day; however, its duties have changed over the years. The Swiss Armed Forces support the NNSC with five unarmed officers, who are stationed in Panmunjom. 

From the start, the NNSC was stationed on both sides of the Military Demarcation Line within the Demilitarised Zone. It was staffed with officers from Switzerland and Sweden (proposed by South Korea), as well as from Poland and Czechoslovakia (proposed by North Korea). These four delegations fulfilled their duties jointly.     

While the Armistice Agreement originally charged the NNSC with supervision, observation, inspection and investigation tasks, the scope of the NNSC’s tasks was already limited at the very beginning of its mission to supervise the augmentation of military personnel and exchange of war material. This was carried out by two of its inspection teams, who were stationed on both sides of the Demarcation Line at five specific ports of entry. Inspection activities were concluded in 1956 under pressure from the warring parties, after which all four NNSC delegations massively reduced their deployed personnel.  

Since 1991, North Korea no longer formally recognises the Military Armistice Commission (MAC), which was also established under the Armistice Agreement. Further, North Korea severed its ties, in stages, with the NNSC in the years that followed. Because of Czechoslovakia’s dissolution in 1993, its delegation was expelled from the NNSC; it was never replaced. On April 28, 1994, the North Korean People's Army declared that it no longer recognised the NNSC either and demanded that the Poles withdraw. The Polish delegation did indeed leave its headquarters in Panmunjom, but even with no permanent presence on the Korean peninsula remained a formal member of the NNSC. The Polish delegation travels regularly to South Korea to attend NNSC meetings. 

There are currently five Swiss and five Swedish officers working for the NNSC at the Military Demarcation Line in Panmunjom. Since 1995, their main task has been to monitor the armistice from the southern side of the border. Since 2010, the NNSC has been carrying out a broader range of tasks agreed to under the Armistice Agreement, which are aimed primarily at confidence building and the promotion of transparency. By carrying out these tasks – which were revised and confirmed in May 2016 – the NNSC can serve as a neutral and impartial observer, and can confirm to the signatories that the Armistice Agreement continues to be observed. Its tasks include observing inspections, joint military exercises and special investigations in case of alleged armistice violations. These tasks are part of military observers’ regular work. Other tasks, such as observing military exercises and manoeuvres, are supervisory and are part of confidence building measures. 

The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) is responsible for Switzerland’s contribution to the NNSC and, at the request of the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport (DDPS) formally elects the head of the delegation. He or she presides the delegation as Major General and is usually appointed for three to five years. The other four delegates are Swiss Armed Forces officers with ranks ranging from captain to colonel. They voluntarily commit to deploy abroad in order to support the Swiss Armed Forces’ military peace promotion. 

NNSC delegates are neither UN blue helmets nor UN military observers (blue berets). During the Korean conflict in 1950, the UN asked its Member States to support South Korea. Sixteen nations responded by providing troops to fight alongside South Korea under the US-led United Nations Command leadership. Because of this, the UN is still considered a warring party in this conflict. As a result – unlike in other ongoing conflicts around the world, where the UN takes on an impartial role – the UN is not considered a neutral third party in the Korea conflict. The NNSC's mandate is based on the Armistice Agreement. As the NNSC’s military representatives, the Swiss delegates must carry out their military and diplomatic mission with transparency and impartiality.