How will South Korea use its seat on UN Security Council?

South Korea's Foreign Ministry has underscored the growing importance of its present seat on the UN Security Council, even though the country previously held the position during the periods of 1996-1997 and 2013-2014.

Ji Da-gyum

Ji Da-gyum

The Korea Herald


January 3, 2024

SEOUL – South Korea embarked on its two-year tenure as a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council as 2024 commenced, aiming to foster unified action on crucial security matters, including North Korea’s nuclear buildup, amid ongoing discord among the five veto-wielding permanent members.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry has underscored the growing importance of its present seat on the UN Security Council, even though the country previously held the position during the periods of 1996-1997 and 2013-2014.

It comes at a critical juncture when the Security Council grapples with heated debates over its effectiveness in the face of complex crises, encompassing a grinding war in Ukraine and armed conflict in Gaza, as well as geographical disputes.

“As a member state, we will fulfill a response role in seeking countermeasures against grave challenges, including the North Korean nuclear issue and the situation in Ukraine, which pose threats to international peace and security,” Lim Soo-suk, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said Tuesday during a regular briefing.

The UN Security Council — the sole authority empowered to render legally binding decisions on 193 UN member states — plays a pivotal role in the global collective security system.

Article 24 of the UN Charter articulates that the UN members “confer on the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, and agree that in carrying out its duties under this responsibility the Security Council acts on their behalf.”

Under the UN charter, members can only use force in case of self-defense or with authorization from the Security Council. The Security Council also decides on the withdrawal or transition of UN peacekeeping operations and adopts sanctions resolutions.

Growing role of nonpermanent members

However, the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council — comprising the United States, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom — “has encountered difficulties in presenting a united voice on key international matters due to internal strife and bloc confrontations,” the Foreign Ministry said Monday in a statement.

“Hence, the role of the 10 elected nonpermanent members in fostering unity, persuading permanent members, and facilitating breakthroughs has become paramount.”

The Security Council has long fallen short in taking any actions since 2019 mainly due to opposition from China and Russia, despite North Korea persistently launching ballistic missiles in violation of multiple UNSC resolutions, for instance.

While the veto power held by the so-called P5 is a potent and unaccountable instrument, it’s crucial to note that decisions within the 15-member Security Council ultimately require the affirmative votes of at least nine members.

“Division among permanent member countries has surfaced, and a substantial contributing factor is the violation of the fundamental commitment not to engage in warfare by one of the permanent members,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity in a closed-door briefing last December, alluding to Russia.

“As a result, the process of consensus-building has become more challenging compared to periods when all P5 members reached agreements by any means possible. Paradoxically, this circumstance has broadened the scope for actions by nonpermanent members.”

The Security Council comprises 10 nonpermanent members, with five elected annually by the General Assembly for a two-year term. Korea is joined by Algeria, Ecuador, Guyana, Japan, Malta, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Slovenia and Switzerland in the current roster for 2024.

New foreign policy tool

As a member of the UNSC, South Korea also possesses the leverage to draw attention to Korean Peninsula affairs, addressing issues such as nuclear nonproliferation and North Korean human rights. The proactive approach aims to contribute to the better management of the situation on the peninsula.

South Korea will continue to play a greater role in improving the human rights situation in North Korea in closer cooperation with friendly countries and the international community, said another Foreign Ministry senior official on condition of anonymity Tuesday during a closed-door briefing.

The official also noted that South Korea, the US and Japan concurrently hold seats at the Security Council this year, marking the first such case since 1997.

South Korea has said it will also lead discussions at the UNSC on emerging security issues such as cybersecurity and climate security, as well as peacekeeping, peace building, and “Women, Peace and Security.”

“If a member raises an issue, the Security Council cannot ignore it, as members rely on each other’s assistance,” the first senior Foreign Ministry official said in December. “By bringing up the Korean Peninsula issues as a directly concerned party, UN Security Council members will treat them with seriousness.”

Since the early 1990s, it has been common practice for the president of the UNSC to introduce thematic issues into the council’s monthly program of work as a way to emphasize and address specific matters of importance.

South Korea is scheduled to assume the presidency twice during the tenure, with the first term set to commence in June of this year. The presidency of the council rotates in alphabetical order of the member states’ names, with each country holding the position for one month.

Furthermore, the key significant aspect is the country’s ability to “secure another validated tool for foreign policy through direct involvement in the decision-making processes of the Security Council,” according to a separate statement from the Foreign Ministry elaborating on South Korea’s role at the UNSC in December.

Another noteworthy benefit is the opportunity to “establish a high-level communication channel” through personal interactions with representatives of the P5, including the US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

“As we take on our third term as a member of the Security Council, we are committed to actively embodying the vision of a global pivotal state,” Lim said Tuesday during the televised briefing.

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