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Swiss engagement in Korea: The forgotten armistice

On 7 July 1953 the Federal Council decided to authorise the Department of Defence to make preparations for sending armed Swiss military personnel to the two commissions NNRC (Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission in Korea) and NNSC (Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission in Korea). That was also the birth of Swiss military peace-keeping. 

In the course of the following months, instalments of a total of 146 Swiss citizens travelled to Korea. The NNRC terminated its work at the end of February 1954, as it had accomplished its mission of conducting and completing the exchange of prisoners. The NNSC still exists today, however, with an adapted range of duties within its mandate, and is supported by the Swiss Armed Forces with five unarmed officers in Panmunjeom. 

The cease-fire agreement between the two warring parties originally gave the NNSC the functions of supervision, observation, inspection and investigation. Already at the beginning of the mission, these extensive functions were, however, reduced to monitoring the exchange of military personnel and war material between North and South Korea at ten transfer locations (ports of entry) specified in the armistice. These inspections were terminated in 1956, whereupon the contingents of all four NNSC delegations were massively reduced. 

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 the South) as well as from Poland and Czechoslovakia (proposed by the North). The four delegations fulfilled their duties jointly. 

With its boycott of the Ceasefire Commission since 1991, North Korea has also gradually begun to sever contacts with the NNSC. Because of the division of Czechoslovakia in 1993, its delegation was expelled from the NNSC and not replaced. On 28 April 1994 the KPA (North Korean People’s Army) stated in a memorandum that it considered the NNSC to be inexistent and required the withdrawal of the Polish delegation. However, even after leaving its headquarters, the Polish delegation remained formal member of the NNSC, but without permanent presence on the Korean peninsula. Two or three times annually, the Polish delegation travels to Korea to participate in the NNSC meetings. 

Today, five Swiss and five Swedish officers are on duty for the NNSC and are stationed in Panmunjeom, immediately south of the Demarcation Line. Presently, their main task continues to consist in monitoring the armistice, although only on the southern side of the border since 1995. The NNSC also has an extended range of duties within the armistice comprising nine specified additional tasks that are aimed primarily at promoting transparency and confidence-building. Apart from more extensive communication of information, these tasks also include participation in inspections of the Ceasefire Commission on the southern side, the observation of South Korean military exercises and US armed forces and observations of special investigations of the Ceasefire Commission when cease-fire violations are suspected. Some of these tasks such as inspections of observation posts and guard posts within and outside the Demilitarised Zone or weapon positions can be classified as traditional military observer duties. Others, however, such as the observation of exercises and manoeuvres are more related to verification. 

In Stans, future Korean delegates are recruited, selected, trained and prepared for their mission. The selection of a delegation chief is formally in the hands of the DFA. He is promoted to major general by the Federal Council for the duration of his mandate. His engagement usually lasts for three to five years. The current delegation chief was proposed by the DDPS and confirmed in office by the DFA. The other four delegates are militia or career officers with the ranks of major to colonel who are doing a voluntary two-year mission abroad as part of the Swiss Armed Forces’ engagement in military peace support. 

NNSC delegates are neither UN blue helmets nor UN military observers (blue berets) as the UN flag stands for the alliance of the 16 force providing nations who under the lead of the USA participated in the war as South Korea’s allies. The mandate of the NNSC is based on the cease-fire treaty of the warring parties. As military personnel of their own country, the NNSC delegates are called to transparently and impartially fulfil their military-diplomatic mission.