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The Peninsula

The Two Koreas Mark 30 Years of UN Membership: The Road to Membership

Published September 24, 2021
Author: Robert King

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

September 17 marked the 30th anniversary of the entry of North Korea and South Korea into full membership in the United Nations.  In recommending admission of the two Koreas for UN membership in 1991, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 702 which said:

The applications of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea have been considered and unanimously approved by the Council. The aspirations of the peoples and Governments of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea have harmoniously coincided. That is why the Council decided to consider and take a simultaneous decision on the admission of both parts of the Korean Peninsula to membership in the world Organization.

The two Koreas did not become full UN members until forty-six years after the organization was established, but both had relationships with the world body beginning shortly after it was founded.

The UN Role in Korea Prior to North and South Membership

The United Nations was established at the end of World War II just as the Korean Peninsula was liberated from Japanese occupation and divided into “temporary” zones under control of the Soviet Union in the North and United States in the South.  The United Nations dealt with Korea as one of the difficult issues in the aftermath of World War II and the growing intensity of the Cold War.  Many of the confidential diplomatic and intelligence communications from the United States and the Soviet Union dating to that time have been made public in recent years, and they document the important role the United Nations played in efforts to cope with the issue of Korea.  (The US Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Digital Archive: International History Declassified has hundreds of U.S. and Soviet diplomatic cables, UN documents and other records which reflect the role of the United Nations organization in dealing with Korea during this period.)

When North Korean military forces launched a massive attack against South Korea in June 1950, within two days, the Security Council adopted UNSC Resolution 83  declaring that “the armed attack upon the Republic of Korea by forces from North Korea constitutes a breach of the peace,” called for “an immediate cessation of hostilities,” and called upon “authorities in North Korea to withdraw forthwith their armed forces to the 38th parallel.”  Just a few days later, UNSC Resolution 84 created a “unified command under the United States of America” and urged UN member states to assist South Korea to “defend itself against armed attack” and “restore international peace and security.”  The resolution authorized use of the United Nations flag for this force in Korea.  (The Soviet Union did not veto this resolution because it was boycotting UN Security Council meetings at that time because of a dispute over seating the People’s Republic of China as a permanent member of the UN Security Council in place of the government of the Republic of China, which was expelled from the mainland and was in control only of Taiwan.)

The United Nations Command in Korea under United States military leadership was established on July 7, 1953, just a few days after the UN Security Council resolution authorized its creation.  The UN Command eventually involved the participation of 22 countries which provided military forces and/or medical and other assistance to the military effort.  Large scale hostilities continued until an armistice agreement was reached July 23, 1953, but no final peace agreement has been signed.  The UN Command still functions and a U.S. military presence continues in South Korea.

The UN Command under United States leadership is still in place to this day, and the U.S. commander of U.S. military forces in Korea, is also the Commander of UN forces in Korea.  Since the armistice agreement of 1953, the role of the UN Command has been more limited, but the command structure remains in place.

UN Membership for “Divided Countries”

Since World War II, membership in the United Nations has been seen as full recognition of a state’s sovereignty and acknowledgement of its belonging to the community of nations.  For both South and North Korea achievement of UN membership was an indication of legitimacy and status.  As the two Koreas sought membership, there were significant similarities to the problems that faced the two Germanys and the two Vietnams, which also emerged from World War II.

Countries which are not yet full United Nations members may apply to accredit permanent official observers who are permitted to participate in UN meetings.  They are also permitted to maintain permanent missions at the UN Headquarters in New York City and at other UN centers in Geneva, Vienna, Paris, and other locations where major UN agencies are headquartered.  Currently there are two recognized observers—the Holy See and the State of Palestine.  Historically, observer status has been an important first step that has led to subsequent full UN membership.

The first of the divided countries dealt with by the UN was Germany, which was divided as the result of the post-World War II occupation.  In 1949 as the Cold War with the Soviet Union was ramping up, the United States, Britain and France merged their three German occupation zones.  Initially it was an economic union, but it subsequently became a political union in May 1949 and was designated the “Federal Republic of Germany.”  The Soviet Union followed the West German example, and Soviet occupation authorities restructured its eastern occupation zone as the “German Democratic Republic” in October 1949.

West Germany became a non-member observer at the United Nations in 1952, but East Germany did not receive UN observer status until 1972, just one year before it was admitted to full UN membership.  The two separate Germanys were simultaneously admitted to membership in the United Nations on September 18, 1973.  For East Germany UN membership was particularly important to establish its credibility as a sovereign state since most countries considered it a compliant Soviet satellite.  West Germany maintained close political, economic, and security relations with the United States and other NATO member countries, but its credibility and viability as a sovereign state was firmly established.

The decision to admit the two Germanys was very much a part of the NATO member countries and the Warsaw Pact member countries effort to encourage security and cooperation in Europe, as the rigid economic, ideological, and political boundaries in Europe began to fade with the creation of the European Union.  This resulted in the creation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) involving countries from East and West of Europe.  The simultaneous admission of East and West Germany to the United Nations in 1973 was a part of that effort.

The same linkage was involved in the case of North and South Vietnam.  The Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) was granted UN observer status in 1952, and it continued to have diplomats accredited as observers to the United Nations until the collapse of South Vietnam in April 1975.  North Vietnam apparently did not request observer status, until the “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” requested observer status at the United Nations in 1975.  Following the formal merger of the South with the North, the united Vietnam was given observer status in 1976.

After the end of the Vietnam conflict, the United States initially opposed admission of Vietnam to the UN because of the country’s failure to provide information on U.S. servicemen missing in action during the Vietnam War.  The United States used its veto in the UN Security Council in 1975 and on other occasions to prevent Vietnam’s UN membership.  Early in the Jimmy Carter Administration in 1977, however, the United States changed its position and supported UN membership for Vietnam.

Since its admission to the UN in 1977, Vietnam has played an important role in the UN.  It was twice elected to a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2008-2009 and again in 2020-2021.  Its diplomats are engaged, sophisticated and well-trained, and they play an important role at the UN.

The Road to UN Membership for the Two Koreas

South Korea was an early official UN observer beginning decades before Seoul was granted membership.  On December 12, 1948, South Korea was recognized by the UN General Assembly as an official observer.  In January 1949 the Republic of Korea formally requested UN membership.  In February that same year, the recently established Democratic People’s Republic of Korea also applied for membership, clearly in response to South Korea’s application.  The Soviet Union, however, opposed membership for South Korea, and no action was taken on either request by the Security Council. The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 delayed any further action on the issue.

South Korea continued as an official UN observer after 1948.  North Korea, however, was not granted observer status until 1973, after the government of the People’s Republic of China replaced the Republic of China at the United Nations, and Beijing assumed China’s permanent membership position in the UN Security Council.

North Korea was less interested in UN membership than the South.  The Korean War was likely the principal reason for its lack of enthusiasm, because the United Nations under U.S. leadership played a major role in mobilizing support for South Korea during the conflict.  U.S. efforts to internationalize support for the South was an irritation to North Korea.

The opportunity for UN membership came with the end of the Cold War and the transformation of the Soviet Union.  On May 28, 1991, North Korea announced that it would apply for membership in the United Nations.  Previously, the North did not seek membership for “North Korea” believing that it was the sole legitimate government for all of Korea.  South Korea makes that same claim, though it has been more pragmatic than the North in dealing with the realities of the divided Peninsula.  The South Korean Foreign Ministry responded to Pyongyang’s 1991 announcement that it would seek UN membership welcoming the North’s announcement.  It said that parallel UN membership for the two governments “is an interim measure pending unification,” and separate memberships “will greatly contribute to easing tension . . . and also facilitate the process of peaceful reunification.”

The UN Security Council unanimously recommended that North and South Korea be admitted to UN membership on August 8, 1991.  When the UN General Assembly next met on September 17, 1991, the first formal act was to admit North and South Korea to full membership.

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.  

Photo from Ashitaka San’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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