The Role of the UN for Korean Unification

On 7 June 2016, I had the privilege of hearing Ambassdor Kim Sook speak on the role of the UN for Korean Unification.

The title of the lecture was “The Role of the UN for Korean Unification (한반도 통일을 위한 유엔의 역할)”, jointly hosted by Ilmin International Relations Institute (IIRI) (일민국제관계연구원) and Social Science Korea (SSK Research Team).

kim sook

Some background information on the speaker:

Ambassador Kim Sook was born on 19 September 1952, and is currently a South Korean diplomat. He has held a variety of diplomatic positions in the United States and Canada. In May 2011, Kim became South Korea’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and in February 2013, he became the President of the United Nations Security Council.

Kim starts by saying how the role of the UN has its place in the past, present and the future with regards to Korean Unification.

Past: UN had a part in Korea’s liberation from 1945-1950, during which Korea was eventually split into two. In 1948, the UN General Assembly acknowledged South Korea as a legitimate country, which also meant that in the process, DPRK was also legitimately recognized.

As a side note, Kim points out the irony in the name of North Korea as “‘Democratic’ People’s Republic Korea”(DPRK), when in reality, North Korea resembles nothing of a democracy.

He goes on to talk about the 1950 Korean War, on how UN took Korea’s issue of unification into its own debate in the Security Council. At the end of the Korean War, UN sent in teams to help rebuild Korea. In 1991, both ROK and DPRK were simultaneously admitted as members of the UN. From 1993 onwards, UN became involved in Korean issues regarding nuclear missile testings, humanitarian assistance and human rights.

In this year alone, North Korea conducted four nuclear tests – the only country in the 21st century to do so.

Since 2003, no human rights issues has been discussed in the UN but in 2013, the human rights(HR) issue in North Korea was widely discussed. And in 2014, the UN Security Council decided to take up the issue of HR again into its agenda again, and sparked off harsh opposition from China and Russia.

With regards to humanitarian assistance, North Korea’s food sustainability is very unstable. There are many UN agencies addressing this issue, and monetary assistance is given annually to this cause. Monetary aid to North Korea has decreased between 2008 and 2014, a reflection that the international community is feeling fatigued by the North Korea Security issue. As such, it is getting harder to raise funds for North Korea’s cause.

The UN General Assembly no longer holds talks with regards to the Korean unification issue. And while the Security Council is the most powerful organ in the UN, having the prerogative to impose binding force on member nations, there are still limitations to its binding force. For instance, if its resolutions are deemed ‘irrelevant’ or ‘non-military’ by member nations, the Security Council is unable to securely enforce its power even though it has the legal binding force.

So what is the proper role of the UN?

Well, it varies. It depends on how we define or realize ‘unification’, and how long it takes for unification to happen.

No one questions unification, based on the principles of the constitution which includes liberal democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights.

One way to see the role of the UN is as an overseer of the peaceful process of unification, that conflicts and differences between countries should be resolved via peaceful means.

Another possible role of the UN is in Development Cooperation, by focusing on the process and seeing to it that North Korea becomes part of the whole Korea; that their economy, quality of life of the average North Korean improves over a relatively short time.

Kim ends off his lecture by quoting a saying that we are masters of our own destiny. While the role of the UN is important, it merely plays a complementary role in facilitating the Korean Unification process. Ultimately, it is the Koreans, as individuals, that need to take things into their own hands. Koreans should not overemphasize the role of the UN or be overly reliant on external powers to resolve the Korean Unification issue, lest they lose their sense of responsibility and accountability for the wellbeing of their own country.


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Currently living and pursuing my undergraduate studies in South Korea.

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