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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 armed military personnel to join the NNRC (Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission in Korea) and the NNSC (Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission in Korea). This was the birth of Swiss peace promotion.

In several stages over the course of the following months, 146 Swiss military personnel were sent to Korea. The NNRC terminated its work at the end of February 1954, having completed its mission of facilitating prisoner exchanges. 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 Panmunjeom.

The NNSC was stationed on both sides of the 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 ceasefire agreement between the two warring parties 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 supervising the exchange of military personnel and 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, after which all four NNSC delegations massively reduced their deployed personnel.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 brought with it political changes on a global scale. In 1991, North Korea announced it no longer formally recognised the Ceasefire Commission, and has since severed ties, in stages, with the NNSC. Because of Czechoslovakia’s dissolution in 1993, its delegation was expelled from the NNSC; it was never replaced. On 28 April 1994, the KPA (North Korean People’s Army) stated in a memorandum that it considered the NNSC dissolved, and demanded the withdrawal of Poland’s delegation. The Polish delegation did indeed leave its headquarters in North Korea, but even with no permanent presence on the Korean peninsula remained a formal member of the NNSC. The Polish delegation travels to South Korea two to three times a year to attend NNSC meetings.

There are currently five Swiss and five Swedish officers working for the NNSC immediately south of the Demarcation Line in Panmunjeom. Since 1995, their main task has been to monitor the ceasefire from the southern side of the border. Since 2010, the NNSC has been carrying out a broader range of tasks agreed to under the Ceasefire 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 their 1953 Ceasefire continues to be followed. Its tasks include carrying out inspections on location, observing joint military exercises in the south, and conducting special investigations in case of suspected ceasefire violations. Some tasks, such as inspecting observation and guard posts or weapon positions, are part of military observers’ regular work. Other tasks, such as observing military exercises and manoeuvres, are more supervisory and fall under confidence building measures. The NNSC has recently proposed new confidence-building measures to the ceasefire parties, which it is now ready to implement, in a bid to further reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula.

The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) is responsible for Switzerland’s contribution to the NNSC and, at the request of the DDPS, formally elects the head of the delegation. He or she is given the rank of major general for the duration of their service by the Federal Council, and is usually appointed for three to five years. The other four delegates are conscript or professional officers with ranks ranging from major to colonel. They voluntarily commit to a one to two-year mission abroad 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 members to support South Korea. Sixteen nations responded by providing troops to fight alongside South Korea under the United States’ leadership. Because of this, the UN is still considered a warring party in this conflict. This is why – 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 and therefore cannot participate in peace talks. The NNSC's mandate is based on the two warring countries’ Ceasefire Agreement, which defines how its tasks and the way it operates. As the NNSC’s military representatives, the Swiss delegates must carry out their military and diplomatic mission with transparency and impartiality.