IN the present world of distrust and fear, where we apparently must accept a bellicose form of coexistence as a substitute for peace, the problem of how to supervise the implementation of international agreements assumes great importance. Not a day goes by without some reference to it, whether in the context of partial or general disarmament or in discussions of the Middle East or "disengagement" in Europe. This may justify a study of a recent experience in international supervision--that of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission set up under the terms of the Armistice Agreement in Korea.

It will be recalled that the Armistice Agreement concluded at Panmunjom in July 1953 provided for the establishment of a Military Armistice Commission, composed of representatives of the two belligerents, and a Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, which was "to carry out the functions of supervision, observation, inspection and investigation." The latter was to consist of representatives of four nations which, to the extent that they had not participated in the war, could be considered neutral--two of them (Sweden and Switzerland) appointed by the United Nations Command and the other two (Poland and Czechoslovakia) by the North Korean-Chinese Command.

The mission of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission was primarily to see that both sides adhered to their agreement not to strengthen their military forces, either by increasing their personnel or by bringing in more advanced weapons. To accomplish this, the Armistice Agreement provided for 20 Neutral Nations Inspection Teams, five to be stationed at ports of entry in South Korea, five at ports of entry in North Korea and the balance held in reserve in the Demilitarized Zone. These ten unassigned Teams could be sent anywhere to investigate reported violations, at the request of "the Military Armistice Commission, or the senior member of either side thereof." These responsibilities of the Supervisory Commission, although strictly circumscribed, appeared to be clearly defined and capable of execution. The means placed at its disposal should have enabled it to supervise the movements of personnel and matériel at the ten designated ports of entry and, upon the request of either side, to dispatch the mobile Teams to conduct investigations at designated points.

Yet obstacles immediately arose, and they soon proved well-nigh insurmountable. The first lay in the divergence between the conceptions of the Armistice held by each side. During the armistice negotiations it had already become apparent that, while the representatives of the United Nations wanted neutral supervision to be as extensive as possible, the North Korean and Chinese representatives wanted its responsibilities and powers restricted. The final terms of the Agreement gave practically no freedom of action to the Supervisory Commission; its function was merely informational. It could do no more than "report the results of [its] supervision, observation, inspection and investigation to the Military Armistice Commission." It was not to concern itself with the way in which its observations were followed up or with measures to punish violations. It was devoid of executive power, subordinate to the Military Armistice Commission, which alone was authorized to "supervise the implementation of the Armistice Agreement" and "settle through negotiations any violations" of the Agreement's provisions.

The Supervisory Commission was also restricted in the geographical sense. It was to cover designated ports of entry, but what assurance was there that the traffic to be supervised would actually come through those ports? Might it not be re-routed? The inspectors were not allowed freedom of movement to satisfy themselves on that score. Moreover, for their own safety they were constantly surrounded by bodyguards who showed the most attentive solicitude--a curious reversal of roles, by which those who were supposed to be under supervision were enabled to supervise their supervisors.

Moreover, the Supervisory Commission found itself immobilized from within, as it were, by its own composition and by the fundamentally different concepts which its members had of their mission. It had been set up on a parity basis, with each side nominating two members. Unlike the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission, it was not to exercise executive powers, and for that reason it was considered unnecessary to provide for a fifth member country. It could therefore be effective only to the extent that the two component groups might be in agreement or that its members might reserve the freedom of individual judgment which would have made it possible to achieve a majority vote. If the members had in fact enjoyed the degree of independence which a truly neutral rôle required, they would have been able to concentrate on establishing the objective facts.

Actually, the notion that any state which had not participated in the Korean War was neutral was, of course, unrealistic. Furthermore, the emphasis on parity in the articles of the Armistice Agreement implied that there were interests to be defended rather than truths to be sought. The classic tradition of the neutral's duties towards all concerned was replaced by a somewhat diffuse concept of the neutral's duties towards the side which had proposed his appointment. Though the Swedes and particularly the Swiss, whose country was not a member of the United Nations, might resist such a concept, they were virtually forced into it by the unvarying support which the Polish and Czechoslovak members gave to whatever position was taken by the North Koreans and the Chinese. Within the Commission a division was created which could not be bridged. A majority vote could not be achieved; the Commission was reduced to impotence.

II

The situation was aggravated by the differing ways in which the sides interpreted the Armistice Agreement. While the Inspection Teams in South Korea were able to carry out their task to the extent allowed by the Agreement, those in North Korea were subjected to restrictions which in effect rendered them totally ineffective.

In April 1955, the Swiss Federal Council reported to the Federal Assembly that At the end of 1953 it seemed entirely clear that as far as South Korea was concerned all movement of personnel and war matériel was passing through the designated ports of entry, as provided in the Armistice Agreement. The ships' papers showing the merchandise carried, including items which did not have to be declared and did not come under the heading of "war matériel," were all made available to the Inspection Teams.

Even so, the Polish and Czechoslovak members of the Teams never failed to notice the slightest error and draw it to the attention of the Commission, insisting that supervision in that particular area should be intensified.

In North Korea conditions were entirely different. In three of the five northern ports there was no activity at all and in the other two traffic was extremely limited. Even more striking was the systematic way in which the authorities, aided and abetted by the Czechoslovaks and Poles, obstructed the activities of the Inspection Teams. Here again a quotation from the report of the Swiss Federal Council is relevant:

The intention to inspect railway stations had to be announced two hours in advance. By the time the Inspection Team arrived the station would usually be deserted. If, on the other hand, a train was in the station and the Swiss and Swedish representatives wanted to inspect it, their Czechoslovak and Polish colleagues would refuse, on the grounds that according to the station master's declaration the train was not carrying war matériel. It would also be claimed that the train was engaged in rail traffic in the interior of North Korea and that the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission was therefore not authorized to inspect it. No documents or timetables could be consulted; according to the railway authorities, such documents did not exist. Finally, the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission had no way of inspecting the several lines of communication which linked Manchuria and Siberia with North Korea but without passing through the ports of entry enumerated in the Armistice Agreement. No air or maritime traffic could be supervised in North Korea.

The difference between the conditions in North and South Korea was so marked that the Swedish and Swiss representatives began trying to introduce in the North some of the methods used in the South. But they could accomplish nothing in the face of the determined opposition of their Czechoslovak and Polish colleagues.

The use of the mobile Inspection Teams accentuated still further the existing divergence of views. As the effectiveness of an investigation depended on its speed, one would have supposed that as soon as a request was received a Team would be dispatched. Yet that was not the case. The Supervisory Commission, as a result of a somewhat surprising interpretation of Article 28 of the Armistice Agreement, had reserved the right to decide how such requests were to be followed up, and thus had opened the door to precisely those obstructionist manœuvres which the provision granting each side the right to request an investigation had been designed to prevent.

In mid-October 1953, for example, the Commission received a request from the U.N. representative on the Military Armistice Commission to make an immediate investigation at a point on the northwestern border of Korea to which, it was claimed, a cargo of aircraft had been dispatched subsequent to the signing of the Armistice Agreement. The immediate departure of an Inspection Team was both necessary and feasible. Yet the Polish and Czechoslovak representatives prevented it, insisting that certain incorrect terms in the text addressed to the Commission should first be deleted, particularly that the term "Communist" used by the representative of the United Nations Command should be replaced by the precise terms "Korean People's Army" and "Chinese People's Volunteers." This process took two days and it was only then that the mobile Inspection Team could be dispatched,

Some months later, at the beginning of 1954, the Supervisory Commission was informed that the Chinese-North Korean Command would no longer admit into the area under its control mobile Inspection Teams dispatched at the request of the United Nations Command. This unilateral declaration, for which the Armistice Agreement gave no authorization whatsoever, did not, it was true, put an end to all inspections; but from then onward the number was greatly restricted. In 1955 there was a renewed exchange of accusations which resulted in the dispatch of several mobile Inspection Teams to both the North and South; but the conditions under which they had to work prevented them from reaching any more positive conclusions than in the past. The Swedish and Swiss members of the Team which had been sent at the request of the Chinese-North Korean side to investigate an incident involving aircraft had the feeling that the witnesses they interrogated had been carefully groomed in what they were to say. Another investigation made at the request of the United Nations Command revealed the existence of landing fields in North Korea suitable for jet aircraft. The presence of a certain number of Mig-15s was noted and the Swedish and Swiss members were convinced that other jet fighters had taken off before the arrival of the Inspection Team. In most cases the mobile Teams were as unable as the Supervisory Commission itself to furnish a majority report.

There was nothing to be done but to admit failure. The Supervisory Commission could not provide the guarantees against violations of the Armistice for which it had been set up. It could not verify the figures furnished it by the two sides. Up to the end of March 1954 it had been informed by the United Nations Command of the arrival in South Korea of 631 combat aircraft, 631 tanks, 82,861 weapons of all calibers, and more than 220 million rounds of ammunition for small arms alone. Up to that same date the Chinese-North Korean side had announced the entry of not a single aircraft, only seven tanks, 641 firearms and 56,650 rounds of ammunition. Four years after signing the Armistice the United Nations Command had reported the entry of 22,800 aircraft, whereas the other side stubbornly maintained that the corresponding figure for the North was zero.

Yet how could it possibly be imagined that an army the size of that of the Chinese volunteers could dispense with ammunition or spare parts? How could any faith be put in "witnesses" who affirmed in 1955 that none of the combat planes on certain airfields in North Korea had ever had to be repaired and that there had never been any need for ammunition or spare arms?

III

The report that the Commission had met with failure was submitted in the spring of 1954 by the Swedish and Swiss representatives. They found encouragement for doing so in a letter, dated April 15, from General Julius Lacey, senior representative of the United Nations Command, in which he drew attention to violations of the Armistice Agreement by the Chinese-North Korean side and criticized the Polish and Czechoslovak members of the Supervisory Commission. In particular he took them to task for their continual opposition to the dispatch of mobile Inspection Teams to North Korea. Three weeks later, faced with the impossibility of reaching agreement in the Supervisory Commission on a reply to this letter, the Swiss and Swedish representatives wrote to General Lacey pointing out the regrettable loopholes in the provisions of the Armistice Agreement, and proposing that the Military Armistice Commission should undertake a new examination of the supervision problem. They concluded by stating: "Under the present conditions the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission is not able to act in conformity with what was presumably the intention of the signatories to the Armistice Agreement."

The Swedish and Swiss representatives followed this with a report to the Military Armistice Commission in which they described the work of the Supervisory Commission, emphasizing the marked difference between the conditions under which it had operated in the North and in the South. "All efforts of the Swedish and Swiss members of the inspection groups to increase the number of unannounced inspections and make them more effective," they stated in part, "have been constantly and systematically frustrated. In view of the way in which such inspections have been conducted, they have ceased to have any usefulness and have served merely as a façade. The inspection groups in North Korea have never been able to evaluate the movement of matériel in a manner comparable to that applied in South Korea."

At the same time the Swedish and Swiss Governments made representations to the Governments of the United States and the People's Republic of China to the effect that they were concerned over the prolongation of a mission which they had accepted on a temporary basis and particularly over the fact that it had proved impossible for the Supervisory Commission to take effective action. They therefore asked the two sides to consider whether it might not be better to relieve the Commission of its task. However, the Czechoslovak and Polish Governments insisted that the Commission was playing a useful and even effective rôle and that its activities should be continued in the interests of peace itself. The Government of the People's Republic of China expressed a similar view.

When the Geneva Conference ended without bringing the Korean problem nearer solution, the Swedish representative to the United Nations put the matter before the Political Committee of the General Assembly at the beginning of December 1954. He drew up a new statement of the difficulties encountered by the Supervisory Commission. He pointed out that the parity formula which had been adopted was unworkable and that the system of supervising five designated points was inadequate in as much as four rail lines linking North Korea with China crossed the border at points where inspection was not specifically authorized. The United States representative agreed that the Supervisory Commission was paralyzed and rendered ineffective by its own rules of procedure, but the delegates of the Soviet Union and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic insisted that the Commission was serving a useful purpose and that there was no need to reform it. Thus, those who had hampered and indeed paralyzed the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission posed as its most ardent and active defenders while the representatives of the United Nations Command and the Swedish and Swiss representatives, who had sought in every way to make the Commission effective, appealed for its abolition.

But the United Nations Command, though impatient to end this travesty of supervision for which it was paying half the costs, did not want to assume responsibility for abridging the Armistice Agreement. Sweden and Switzerland felt that it was not for either of them to make the decision. The result was a "compromise," which went into effect in the summer of 1955. It was agreed, not without misgivings, to cut down the size of the Supervisory Commission staff by abolishing two of the stationary Inspection Teams in both North and South Korea and by making a 50 percent reduction in the number of men on the remaining Teams. This was only the first step, for in the following year the United Nations Command notified the Military Commission of its decision to suspend temporarily the provisions of the Armistice Agreement regulating the activity of the Supervisory Commission. On June 8 it requested the Commission to withdraw the Inspection Teams from South Korean territory. Subsequently, it was decided to abolish all the stationary Teams, and from then on the Commission's activity was limited to recording such information as each side might furnish concerning changes in its military personnel and armaments.

In the following year the Commission had to bow to the United Nations Command's decision to introduce new weapons into Korea in defiance of the Armistice Agreement. Finally, in January 1958 the United Nations Command announced its intention to introduce atomic weapons into South Korea. The inability of the Armistice supervision bodies to carry out the task of inspecting the activities of one side, as provided for in the Agreement, had driven the other side to free itself of its obligation in order to ensure its own protection.

Had not the time come to abolish the Supervisory Commission? This question was continually being asked and continually left unanswered. The Czechoslovaks and Poles, having protested along with the Chinese and North Koreans against flagrant violations of the Armistice Agreement by the United Nations Command, failed to take the logical counterstep, which would have been to offer to open North Korea to effective inspection. Instead, they appeared quite ready to accommodate themselves to the new situation. The Americans and South Koreans, no longer hampered by the presence of the Czechoslovaks and Poles and free to accelerate the modernization of their armament, now showed less haste to do away with a body which had ceased to inconvenience them and might even serve to restrain the propaganda directed against them by the North Koreans and Chinese. The Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission thus remains a façade, maintained only because of apprehension about the void that would occur if it were abolished.

IV

This experience has been most instructive. Like many others, it clearly reveals the difference in the concepts held by each side as to proper dealings among nations. One side looked upon the Armistice as a step towards a peace settlement and considered itself bound, in its own interest, by the provisions of the Agreement which it signed. The other side looked upon the Armistice only as a lull in a struggle which must not be allowed to terminate until the final victory of socialism had been achieved--a lull needed in order to regroup its forces but without interrupting the battle that was continuing by other means. To this end, the Agreement must first of all be binding upon the other side and must furnish a legal pretext for interfering in its activities, weakening and paralyzing it, while at the same time ensuring that the revolutionary camp would be protected in carrying out its own illegal designs. Hence there is nothing surprising about the tenacity with which the Chinese and North Koreans have insisted upon maintaining the fiction of Armistice supervision. Having used it to cover the clandestine reconstitution of their own forces, they can then turn it against the enemy which they have driven to open violation and even denunciation of certain of the Armistice provisions.

Must it then be concluded that in the existing circumstances--and when a Communist state is involved--international supervision of any kind is out of the question?

It is easy enough to think so, for the problem of dealing with governments which use legal machinery to carry out illegal operations and which regard politics as only another means of waging war often seems insoluble. The area to be supervised is likely to be large and the number of inspectors small; the specialized problems raised by technical developments are enormously complex. Thus if either party to a dispute wishes to circumvent supervision it has every chance of succeeding.

Yet that is not sufficient reason for dismissing the matter. What lessons can we draw from past experience that may be helpful in the future?

If supervision is to be effective, it must be organized with the greatest care and the procedures to be followed must be worked out to the smallest detail. This takes time. For example, it may be important to consult the representatives of the countries which are to carry out the supervisory mission. The Swiss Government, to which the Korean Armistice Agreement was submitted in draft form, put before the United States Government a number of observations and suggestions which could not be taken into account. They unfortunately turned out to have been all too pertinent.

Above all, the supervisory staff should be assured real freedom of movement and the right and the means to pursue its investigations to whatever point it considers necessary. As soon as it is restricted to the inspection of certain areas only and prevented from making investigations elsewhere as it sees fit, it loses the ability to furnish the guarantees expected from it. Some will ask whether this privilege will not be abused. Certain provisions of the Korean Armistice Agreement were aimed precisely at protecting the two sides against the possibility that the supervision machinery might be used for purposes of espionage. Indeed, this was one of the South Korean Government's most vehement objections to the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission. Here again there can be no solution unless those responsible for supervision regard themselves not as defenders of the interests of one camp but as strictly impartial mandataries of both sides or as representatives of the superior body from which they draw their authority.

A supervision agreement should also provide that any attempt by either side to hinder the work of the inspectors would be punishable. Sanctions of some kind are essential. Yet the most effective weapon at the disposal of any international supervising body is likely to be publicity. Tricksters, however cynical, are reluctant to be unmasked and publicly confounded. For that reason provision should be made that the reports of inspectors shall be given the widest possible publicity. In this way the supervisory commission itself would have in its hands a means of punishing obstructionist tactics and violations of international agreements.

Finally, it is vital to put supervision in the right hands. When international crises have arisen since the Korean War a hasty call has gone out to military men who had no political background or to civilians who had no knowledge of either international or military affairs. In both cases, they often were entirely unfamiliar with the area to which they were to be sent. In addition to being men of political and military experience, the persons chosen for such delicate and important tasks must have unquestioned integrity; they must have the moral authority before world opinion to give them success in their effort to maintain true objectivity and serve a cause transcending the interests of one party or nation.

The formation of a corps of functionaries for missions of inquiry and supervision will have to be undertaken sooner or later. Individuals ought to be chosen for it not by the usual geographical criteria but for their character and intellectual capacities. The special training they receive should simply round out their inherent qualifications through study of the special problems that will confront them in their work and of the experience that has been gained in dealing with such problems in the past.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • JACQUES FREYMOND, Director of the Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, and Professor of History; author of "De Roosevelt à Eisenhower" and other works.
  • More By Jacques Freymond