The ICRC and the Korean War : upholding principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence in humanitarian action
by Jun-Ki Lee
At the outbreak of the Korean War, the International Committee of the Red Cross offered its humanitarian services - including relief for war victims - to both the Republic of Korea (RoK) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Throughout the Korean War, the ICRC's presence and its operations remained limited to the RoK, despite its continuous efforts to engage with the DPRK directly and via China and the Soviet Union, into accepting the ICRC's presence and humanitarian operations in its territory. According to one author, this is primarily because the ICRC was not perceived as a neutral humanitarian agency, but rather as an appendage of the capitalist West, by countries who upheld communism at the time since Switzerland was not allied with many of the States in the Communist East. Moreover, the Korean War was the first armed conflict of international scope, against a backdrop of ideological tensions between communism and capitalism, which occured after the adoption of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Through experiences from the Korean War, international humanitarian law further evolved, and so did the ICRC’s operational modalities. In particular, discussions on how to interpret certain articles of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 took place. Meanwhile, the ICRC’s operational modalities became more refined, as it learned lessons on taking pragmatic approaches to emerging challenges, in keeping with the fundamental principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.