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The Peninsula

The Two Koreas Mark 30 Years of UN Membership: Different Roles for North and South Korea

Published September 28, 2021
Author: Robert King

This is the second in a two part series looking at the entry of South and North Korea into the United Nations. The first part can be found here

Since their admission to the UN, the two Koreas have played quite different roles in the organization.  In the thirty years since it became a UN member, South Korea has been a leader in the UN.  It was elected to serve two terms as one of the ten non-permanent members of the UN Security Council—1996-1997 and 2013-2014.  South Korea is currently seeking another Security Council term.  Seoul is one of the ten leading countries contributing to the UN budget and donating to UN assistance programs.

Furthermore, senior South Koreans have played leading roles in the organization.  The previous UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, is a former South Korean Foreign Minister.  He served two five-year terms as Secretary General (2007-2016).  Only eight other individuals have served as Secretary General in the history of the United Nations.  South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Han Seung-soo was elected to serve as President of the UN General Assembly (2001-2002).  A number of senior South Korean diplomats have also held senior leadership positions in the UN Secretariat.  Kang Kyung-wha, South Korean Foreign Minister (2017-2021), served as UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights (2006-2013) and as Assistant Secretary-General for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (2013-2016).  Former South Korean Foreign Minister (2002-2003) Kim Won-soo, served as Assistant Secretary General (2007-2015) and Under Secretary-General and Acting High Representative for Disarmament Affairs (2015-2017).  (See Ambassador Kim Won-soo’s KEIA online conversation on the 30th anniversary of South Korea’s UN Membership.)

The involvement of North Korea and the United Nations has been very much the opposite of South Korea’s exemplary leadership at the UN.  North Korea has been the object of UN concern and attention focused on the country’s disturbing policies on nuclear weapons and human rights.  South Korea’s policies have had an important impact upon international efforts of the UN; North Korea’s policies toward the UN have primarily focused on countering UN sanctions against the North for its nuclear and missile programs and U.N. criticism of its human rights policies.  The North’s efforts are largely focused on seeking to undermine and minimize UN efforts that affect the North.  For that reason, the anniversary of the admission of the two Koreas to the UN has largely been ignored by the North, while it has been celebrated in the South as recognition of South Korea’s international leadership.

Putting aside the United Nations role in organizing opposition to North Korea’s efforts to unify Korea by force during the Korean War of the 1950s, the United Nations continues to be the framework for rallying international opposition to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.  United Nations sanctions have played a major role in generating pressure to force the North to abandon its weapons programs.  The United Nations Security Council has been the principal institution that has brought together the international community to impose economic sanctions against the North for its illegal weapons programs, and thanks to the UN Security Council role, this sanction effort has included North Korea’s principal allies—China and Russia.

Furthermore, the United Nations has been the major force in mobilizing international criticism of North Korea’s horrific human rights policies.  Since 2004, the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly have annually discussed and adopted resolutions harshly critical of North Korean human rights abuses.  Even the UN Security Council has held sessions to consider the human rights abuses in the North as a threat to international peace and security.  The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has established a field office in Seoul to gather information and report to the High Commissioner on human rights conditions in the North.

Contrasting South and North Commemoration of UN Admission

On September 17, South Korean President Moon Jae-in issued a statement welcoming the 30th anniversary of the admission of the two Koreas to the United Nations.  He said the simultaneous accession to the UN was the North and South’s “first step towards international dialogue and cooperation,” but he added, “There remains much to be done to realize complete denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

President Moon also traveled to New York for the high-level week discussions opening the UN General Assembly’s annual meeting.  In this era of the COVID pandemic, his travel to New York highlighted the importance of the 30th anniversary of UN membership.  In his remarks to the General Assembly he called for peace and reconciliation with North Korea.  “With the joint accession to the U.N., the two Koreas both recognized that they were two separate nations, different in systems and ideologies,” President Moon said. “However, such was never meant to perpetuate the division. For when we acknowledged and respected each other, only then could we set out on a path to exchange, reconciliation and unification.”

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, in stark contrast, did not even bother to make a statement about the 30th anniversary.  It appears that not even the North Korean mission to the United Nations acknowledged the anniversary, and there was apparently no notice of the date in North Korean media.  (A check through the last month of North Korean media reveals no mention of the 30th anniversary of the country’s admission to the United Nations, although there are stories about North Korea’s conscientious observance of “World Ozone Day,” designated by the United Nations, citing Pyongyang’s efforts to protect the ozone layer.  Another story summarizes foreign recognition of the 73rd anniversary of the founding of North Korea.)

On September 15, 2021, just a two days before the UN membership anniversary, however, North Korea launched two ballistic missiles off its east coast.  This was Pyongyang’s first missile test in six months, and the test violates multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions that ban North Korea from conducting such tests.

While North Korea clearly ignored the 30th anniversary of its UN membership and thumbed its nose at the UN Security Council, which has repeatedly called for it to cease missile tests, UN membership is still important to Pyongyang.  Membership gives the North a legitimacy that has great value to the isolated regime.  It provides an important link for North Korean diplomats to engage with diplomats and foreign policy personnel from many other countries.  North Korea has a relatively small number of foreign embassies around the world, but the UN diplomatic community in New York City provides a useful opportunity for contacts.  The North Korean mission to the United Nations is also an important point of contact between Pyongyang and Washington.  Although the UN membership is not celebrated, it still has value for the North.

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

Photograph from United Nations Photo’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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