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How can South Korea leverage its UN Security Council seat?

South Korea can play a bigger role amid increased divisions among the P5 at Security Council, says senior Foreign Ministry official

May 31, 2024 - 16:09 By Ji Da-gyum
The UN Security Council holds a meeting on the situation in the Middle East and Palestine at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Wednesday. (AP)

JEJU ISLAND -- As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, South Korea is uniquely positioned to address not only North Korean issues but also pressing global challenges, leveraging its strengths — successful experiences and significant global contributions in areas such as food security and peacekeeping operations, senior UN officials and experts emphasized on Thursday.

Furthermore, South Korea's direct concern with the impact of human rights violations on security — especially the ramifications of North Korea's human rights violations on its denuclearization — highlights its potential to prioritize critical agenda items in the UN Security Council, according to the experts based in Seoul.

As South Korea is set to take on the rotational presidency of the UN Security Council in June, senior UN officials and experts discussed the agenda topics South Korea should prioritize at the Security Council during a separate session at the ninth Jeju Forum.

Park Jae-jeok, an associate professor of international relations in the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, called for South Korea to raise awareness of North Korean human rights violations and to strengthen the North Korean sanctions regime as a directly concerned party at the UNSC.

Park also proposed that South Korea prioritize agenda items related to UN Peacekeeping Operations or PKOs at the Security Council. South Korea's active involvement in 13 PKOs since 2000, with a total of 94,400 deployed peacekeepers, underscores its commitment and significant contributions to global peace and security.

Emerging advanced technologies such as AI present an opportunity for South Korea to take the lead in raising relevant issues in the UNSC, leveraging its significant experiences, including co-hosting the AI Seoul Summit with the United Kingdom in May, according to Park.

The Korea Academic Council on the United Nations System hosts the session, "Republic of Korea as a Non-Permanent Member of the UN Security Council: Roles and Challenges," during the ninth Jeju Forum on Thursday. (Jeju Forum)

Shengyao Tang, Food and Agriculture Organization representative and head of the FAO Partnership and Liaison Office in South Korea, said Seoul should prioritize food security as a key issue for discussion at the UN Security Council.

"The ROK suffered from hunger, poverty and malnutrition before the 1970s, and now it's the only country that has successfully shifted from a developing country -- a poor country -- to a developed country," Tang said, referring to South Korea by the acronym of its official name, the Republic of Korea.

"So I do think that in the global and UN agenda, the ROK can share and, maybe in setting the agenda, its best experience and practices in food and agriculture to benefit the global international community, particularly to benefit developing countries."

Imesh Pokharel, deputy representative of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul, proposed that South Korea shed light on North Korean human rights issues and the “centrality of human rights in the peace and security agenda" at the Security Council.

The concept of the centrality of human rights underscores that promoting and protecting human rights is among the most effective methods for the Security Council to fulfill its mandate of maintaining peace and security. Human rights violations, inequalities and discrimination often serve as the root causes of conflict, according to Pokharel.

Pokharel explained applying the "centrality of human rights" to peace and security in the North Korean case entails recognizing that widespread and longstanding human rights violations in the DPRK cannot be viewed in isolation from peace and security issues on the peninsula and in the wider region.

"There are challenges to pursuing the human rights agenda at the UN Security Council in the current political divide," Pokharel said. "However, the ROK's membership at the UNSC is also an opportunity to reinvigorate this agenda."

Park pointed out that setting the agenda for discussion at the UNSC requires only a simple majority through procedural votes, during which permanent members are unable to exercise their veto powers.

Against this backdrop, Park said cooperation between South Korea, Japan and the United States is crucial to "set the agenda that can accommodate the three states' national interests."

Lee Kyung-chul, high representative for UN Security Council Affairs at South Korea's Foreign Ministry, delivers his keynote speech on Thursday during the Jeju Forum. (Jeju Forum)

Experts also emphasized the importance of South Korea aligning its agenda priorities at the UN Security Council with its primary foreign policy goal of becoming a "global pivotal state."

"And now it's our third term in 2024, and we have different roles and different challenges. It's because where Korea is now and where Korea is looking at has changed," said Kim Su-weon, an assistant professor of international political economy at the Graduate School of International and Area Studies of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

"Korea is looking to become a global pivotal state. At the same time, these changes, roles and challenges arise because the needs of the world have changed," Kim said.

Kim emphasized that Korea needs to "go global" by setting an agenda that encompasses Africa, citing climate and food security as a prime example.

In his keynote speech, Lee Kyung-chul, high representative for UN Security Council Affairs at South Korea's Foreign Ministry, emphasized, "The vision of serving as a global pivotal state, or GPS, embraced by the ROK government, is a guiding light in our activities as a Council member."

South Korea's focus at the UNSC includes thematic issues such as: Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding; Cybersecurity; Women, Peace and Security; and Climate and Security, among others.

Lee expressed, "As we are holding the presidency of the Council in June, and once more in the second half of next year, we intend to seek to raise the profile of such matters in the deliberations by the Council."

Lee also underscored the growing importance of being a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, especially amid increased divisions among the five permanent members.

"(The situation), paradoxically enough, brings greater scope for maneuver to the elected members," Lee said. "That means a bigger workload, but, at the same time, a bigger role to play than was previously the case."