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The Peninsula

South and North Korea Take Leadership Roles at the United Nations: Differences are Striking

Published June 8, 2023
Author: Robert King

Recently, both South Korea and North Korea have been chosen to serve in leading positions in the United Nations at the Security Council and World Health Organization.  The different roles and status of the two Koreas in the UN tells a great deal about the standing and the reputation of Seoul and Pyongyang in the world community.

On Tuesday June 6, the United Nations voted on a slate of countries to take the rotating member country positions on the UN Security Council with South Korea securing one of the non-permanent seats.  Serving on the 15-member Security Council is the pinnacle of leadership, recognition and respect in the United Nations.  Under terms of the UN Charter, 5 of the 15 members are the permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and any one of these countries can veto action by the Security Council.  The other ten seats are held by countries which are elected to serve two-year terms on the Council, with five elected each year.  The non-permanent members do not have a veto over council actions.

With 193 member countries in the UN, serving in one of the prestigious rotating Security Council positions is highly sought after, but it is an infrequent opportunity.  The rotating seats on the Security Council are allocated geographically, and regional groupings of nations agree among themselves on how the regional Council seats should be allocated.  Larger, wealthier, and more influential countries tend to serve more frequently in these key positions.  The process for selecting the rotating council members is where diplomatic give and take play out.

The UN Charter gives the Security Council primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. The Council may convene at any time on any issue that is considered a threat to peace. In contrast to decisions that are taken in the General Assembly, all Member States are obligated under the UN Charter to carry out Security Council decisions.

South Korea Will Again Serve on the Security Council; North Korea Is Still Subject to Security Council Sanctions

Both North and South Korea are relatively new members of the United Nations, largely because of conditions in Korea – occupied by Japan (1910-1945), followed by the division of the peninsula into two separate states after World War II.  While the UN was heavily involved in the Korean War and in efforts to resolve the status of Korea, neither South nor North Korea were initially members of the United Nations due to the divisions of the Cold War.  The breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, however, finally created the political space to allow the simultaneous admission of both Koreas as members of the UN in 1991.  Although the United Nations will mark 77 years since its founding this year, it has only been 32 years since the two Koreas have been members of the organization.

This is particularly significant because this week, South Korea was elected by the UN General Assembly to serve a two-year term as a member of the Security Council (2024-2025).  This is the third time that South Korea will serve on the Council.  South Korea was a member of the council 1996-1997 and again 2013-2014.  This is a tribute to the diplomatic skills and international savvy of South Korean diplomats, as well as the commitment of the South Korean people and their government to play a positive role in the international community.

North Korea, throughout its existence, has been the object of United Nations concern and attention, and Pyongyang has seldom played a positive role in supporting and encouraging the high-minded international goals of the organization.  While South Korea looks forward to a third term as a member of the Security Council, North Korea has been the subject of nine major sanctions resolutions in response to the country’s nuclear and missile activities since 2006, and the Security Council has issued numerous other warnings.  Because of Pyongyang’s response to past UN Security Council resolutions and calls for action on security threats posed by the North, it is unlikely that North Korea could be elected to a temporary seat on the Security Council.

North Korean Diplomat to Serve on World Health Organization Executive Board

The 193 member countries of the United Nations range from the largest and most powerful countries in the world, to tiny sovereign nations.  (The Pacific island nation of Tuvalu has the smallest population of any UN member-country with a current estimated population of 11,900 and a land area of about ten square miles.)  Despite the vast differences between UN member countries, there has been a conscious effort to engage all UN member countries in the organization’s activities.

The decision was made at the end of May to include a North Korean official on the Executive Board of the World Health Organization (WHO).  The North Korean physician was one of a slate of nine individuals who were approved en bloc at a WHO meeting in Geneva.  WHO Executive Board members are individuals who hold qualifying credentials, and they are selected for their health care expertise, although clearly they are nominated by their country of citizenship and they play a political as well as a technical medical role.  The North Korean who will be a member of the board is identified as a doctor, though not a great deal is known about him.

It would be unthinkable that North Korea could serve on the UN Security Council since North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions are of major concern to the Security Council and the frequent subject of UN sanctions. It is less problematic to consider a North Korean official serving on the WHO Executive Board, although Pyongyang’s poor handling of the COVID pandemic, and particularly its refusal to accept WHO offered COVID vaccinations and medical aid, raises real questions about a North Korean official on the Executive Board.  North Korea had no other source of vaccine for its people, and clearly Pyongyang’s response in rejecting UN help was far from exemplary.

The U.S. representative at the WHO assembly explicitly expressed concern pointing at the North Koreans:  “The U.S. takes this opportunity to reinforce the expectation of members of the executive board and calls on the government of the DPRK to respect human rights, fulfil its obligations under UN Security Council resolutions and engage in serious and sustained diplomacy.”  The North Korean delegate responded with a much less diplomatic statement charging that the United States was “satanic,” and he called the U.S. statement an “abuse” of WHO procedures.

Following the WHO vote to approve the slate of Executive Board Members, including the North Korean official, the South Korean foreign ministry issued a statement raising Pyongyang’s concerns:  “It is questionable whether North Korea, which has consistently violated U.N. Security Council resolutions, meets the standards of the WHO executive board that must comply with international norms and contribute to improving global health.”

The response of the international human rights community was also quick and even more negative in responding to the North Korean selection.  Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, an independent non-governmental human rights group in Geneva, said,  “What this means is that one of the world’s most horrific regimes is now a part of a group that sets and enforces the standards and norms for the global governance of health care. It is an absurd episode for a key U.N. agency that is in much need of self-reflection and reform.”

The 34-member WHO Executive Board are not government representatives of different countries, but they are expected to be health specialists who serve because of their educational and technical expertise.

U.S. Presidential Politics Increases Media Attention for North Korea’s WHO Appointment

The North Korean appointment would likely have gone largely unnoticed if the only reaction had been the South Korean Foreign Ministry statement and comments from international human rights organizations.  One of the most bizarre responses to North Korea’s selection to serve on the Executive Board of the WHO, however, was a comment from the former U.S. President Donald Trump.  As the New York Post observed: Trump triggered a “political furor with a Truth Social post about news that North Korea has been elected to the executive board of the World Health Organization.”  The former president proclaimed, “Congratulations to Kim Jung Un!”

While there was little response from the foreign policy experts in the United States or elsewhere to the former president’s comment, the former president’s congratulations provoked a very strong and very negative rejoinder from other leading U.S. Republican presidential candidates.  Former Vice President Mike Pence told Fox News, “No one should be praising the dictator in North Korea. . . This is a time when we ought to make it clear to the world that we stand for freedom and we stand with those who stand for freedom.”

Nikki Haley, who Trump appointed to serve as the U.S. representative to the United Nations in New York, observed, “You don’t congratulate a thug.”  She continued, Kim Jong-un “is a terrible individual. He’s terrible to his people, he’s terrible to our allies in the world, and I don’t think he deserves congratulations.”  Haley called the decision to appoint North Korea to the WHO board a “total farce.”  Florida governor Ron DeSantis expressed surprise at the Trump statement adding “Kim Jong-un is a murderous dictator.”  He then went on to suggest that the North Korean appointment indicates another reason why the United States should not be involved in international bodies like the World Health Organization.

Although the biggest headlines resulting from the North Korean appointment at the WHO were focused on inter-party squabbles for the U.S. presidential nomination, the attention did reinforce the clear message that human rights in North Korea remain a major issue of concern.  And the contrast with South Korea’s two-year appointment to the UN Security Council only served to highlight the stark differences on the Korean peninsula between South and North.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Distinguished Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights (2009-2017). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo by Mark Garten from United Nations Photo on flickr Creative Commons.

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