Escalating Tension on the Korean Peninsula and the Role of the UN

At the UN, the British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, who holds the presidency of the Security Council for the month of November, told journalists that he was having consultations among Security Council members on Korea and the consultations would continue. It was Wednesday afternoon at the stakeout at the UN Security Council. It was the day before the American celebration of Thanksgiving. The Security Council had met for consultations on another matter, but a number of journalists came to the stakeout to hear if the Security Council had any plans about what it would do about the increased hostilities on the Korean peninsula. The British Ambassador didn’t take any questions from journalists so there was little communication about what was being planned at the Security Council.

Ban Ki-moon’s Response

Just a few hours after the hostilities had erupted between the two Koreas on November 23, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a press statement that “the Secretary-General is deeply concerned by the escalation of tension on the Korean peninsula caused by today’s artillery attack by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) on the Yeongpyeong Island. The attack was one of the gravest incidents since the end of the Korean War.” And that he “condemns the attack and calls for immediate restraint.”(1)

Also the statement said that Ban conveyed his “utmost concern” on the matter to the President of the Security Council.

Such a statement represents a problem for the UN. Article 100 of the UN Charter says: “In the performance of their duties the Secretary General and the staff shall not receive instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the Organization. They shall refrain from any action which might reflect on their position as international officials responsible only to the organization.”

The Secretary General is a former Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea (South Korea). If there is a problem between two nations, the obligation under the charter would be to inquire into the situation before making a statement or taking an action which favors one side in the dispute. This is not what the Secretary General did. Instead, he quickly made a public statement about the conflict, taking the side of South Korea.

In his hastily issued statement, Ban Ki-moon blamed North Korea for its actions and expressed sympathies to South Korea. Reports from North Korea, and also from South Korea, however, indicate that at 1:00 pm on November 23, North Korea complained to South Korea about the live firing by the South Korean military into disputed waters which both North Korea and South Korea claim. North Korea said that the firing of live ammunition came from Yeongpyeong Islet, where South Korea has a military base. When there was no response from South Korea to North Korea’s efforts to communicate, North Korea said it had no choice but to return the fire, acting in self defense.

Much of the media, however, does not include North Korea’s side of the story in its coverage of Korean news. For example, in this situation, numerous accounts of how North Korea fired at the Yeonpyeong Islet of South Korea appeared in the media, presenting this as but another example of North Korea’s so called ‘bellicose’ and ‘irrational’ nature.

It is rare that any of the mainstream media accounts in the US document the hostile environment of multiple war exercises and rehearsals for an invasion carried out by the South Korean and US military threatening North Korean security. It is rare that any of the mainstream news media, particularly in the US, give information about the background of the tension in this area.

Armistice Did Not Solve Contested Waters of the West Sea

On July 27, 1953, an armistice was signed by the DPRK (North Korea), the Unified Command headed by the US, and the Chinese Peoples Volunteers, to end the hostilities of the Korean War. This was not, however, a peace treaty ending the war, nor did the armistice agreement settle disputed political claims like the claims about West Sea boundaries. Instead, the armistice included a provision that in three months a political conference should be held of higher level representatives of the parties to formulate the political agreements to conclude a peace treaty to officially end the Korean War.(2)

One month after the armistice agreement, on August 30, 1953, the head of the Unified Command, the American commander, General Mark W Clark, unilaterally declared a West Sea boundary called the Northern Limit Line (NLL). He claimed he did this, “in order to prevent accidental clashes at sea between the two Koreas.” The NLL is not part of the armistice agreement. It has never been accepted by the North Korea, and left in dispute for more than 50 years, the boundaries of the Korean West Sea off the coast of the North Korea. The NLL hugs the coast line of North Korea rather than continuing westerly the 38th parallel which is the land demarcation.

The political conference recommended in the armistice agreement to formulate a peace treaty was never held. Instead the NLL has been a continuing source of tension. Recognizing the danger to peace and stability represented by this contested area, North Korea and South Korea have included provisions for the peaceful use of this area in several agreements between the two Koreas. These include the 1991 North-South Joint Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, and Cooperation and Exchange, and the agreements reached at the June 2000, and the October 2007 joint presidential summits. In the 1991 North-South Joint Agreement, procedures were designed so that no provocative action would be carried out by either party in the disputed areas.

For example, in the 1991 agreement, Chapter 3 Article 11 of the appendix on non-aggression stipulates that the maritime non-aggression zone will be controlled by both sides until the maritime non-aggression boundary line is settled. (3) In the 2007 agreement, North and South Korea agreed to “designate a joint fishing area” in the West Sea to avoid accidental clashes and ultimately to work to make this joint fishing area into a “peace area.” (4)

Firing into Contested Waters as a Provocation

North Korea says that South Korea’s live firings into the disputed waters, which are close to North Korean land, is a serious provocation. It charges that if it does not respond to the actions of South Korea in this contested area, then South Korea and the US will take it as a tacit recognition that the NLL is accepted as the maritime boundary. Also it believes that such military drills can be used to mask an actual invasion.

Occasionally a press account refers to the fact that there continues to be a state of war between North Korea and South Korea. Rare it is, however, that there is any acknowledgement in the mainstream media or at the UN Security Council that it is a problem that this state of war continues from the era of the 1950s until today, almost 60 years later. With only an armistice agreement signed in 1953, but no peace treaty ending the Korean War, the disputed issues not resolved by the armistice continue as unsettled issues that are potential triggers for a resumption of military hostilities by either side.

North Korea has repeatedly asked the US to meet to resolve the issues needed for drawing up a peace treaty. The US continually offers some excuse to refuse the request.

Security Council Considered Both Sides in Cheonan Dispute

In a rare move in June and July, the UN Security Council acted with an appropriate neutrality in what has been referred to as the Cheonan incident. The views of both sides of the dispute, of North Korea and of South Korea, were sought by the Mexican Presidency of the Security Council in June, and by some members of the Security Council. In July, both sides of the dispute were represented in the Presidential statement which was issued by the Security Council under the Nigerian Presidency. (5)

This example of the Security Council fulfilling its obligations, generally has been ignored, or poorly understood. The official UN document that would provide a summary of how the Security Council treated the two Koreas in a “balanced”, and neutral way is the Summary Document of the Mexican Presidency (S/2010/486). Inexplicably, however, this UN document is not available. For some reason the distribution of this document is being blocked by the Security Council.

Need for Peace Treaty

Under the UN charter, the Security Council has the obligation to work for peace and security in the resolution of problem situations. Ban Ki-moon has the authority to bring such a situation to the attention of the Security Council. In this situation, instead of bringing the actual problem to the Security Council, however, he supported one side and the actual problem was ignored. The issue of the need for a peace treaty to end the Korean War is a critical issue. It is the obligation of both Ban Ki-moon, as Secretary General of the UN, and of the Security Council, to find a way to support the drafting of such a treaty. It is high time the Security Council takes on to meet its actual obligations.


1)Statement attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, “Expressing Deep Concern at Rising Tension, Secretary- General Condemns Attack by Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Calls for ‘Immediate Restraint’,” UN, November 23, 2010.

2) See Text of the Korean War Armistice Agreement (1953)

“60. In order to insure the peaceful settlement of the Korean question, the military Commanders of both sides hereby recommend to the governments of the countries concerned on both sides that, within three (3) months after the Armistice Agreement is signed and becomes effective, a political conference of a higher level of both sides be held by representatives appointed respectively to settle through negotiation the questions of the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea, the peaceful settlement of the Korean question, etc.”

3)”Chapter 2 Article 11 of the ‘Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, Cooperation, and Exchange Between the North and South’ which was adopted in 1991 stipulates that the North and South will regard the non-aggression boundary line and zone as the Military Demarcation Line and zone controlled by both sides, as defined in the Armistice Agreement. Also Chapter 3 Article 11 of the appendix on non-aggression stipulates that the maritime non-aggression zone will be controlled by both sides until the maritime non-aggression boundary line is settled.”
Quote from DPRK-Committee-to-Nullify-InterKorean-Political-Military-Agreements

For the Agreement, see

4) See Declaration on the Advancement of South-North Korean Relations, Peace and Prosperity – 2007
“The South and the North have agreed to designate a joint fishing area in the West Sea to avoid accidental clashes. The South’s Minister of Defense and the North’s Minister of the People’s Armed Forces have also agreed to hold talks in Pyongyang this November to discuss military confidence-building measures, including military guarantees covering the plans and various cooperative projects for making this joint fishing area into a peace area.”

5)See for example, Ronda Hauben, “In Cheonan Dispute UN Security Council Acts in Accord with UN Charter”,, September 5, 2010.


Ronda Hauben who is an award winning journalist, writer, and resident correspondent for (Die Tageszeitung) at the United Nations in New York is also a Senior Advisor to the Fourth Media, English Website of the April Media.

A version of this article appears on netizenblog

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