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Bring United Nations headquarters to Korea

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Emanuel Pastreich
Emanuel Pastreich
By Emanuel Pastreich

The Trump administration's decision to reduce drastically the U.S. contribution to the United Nations was generally interpreted as payback after the stunning rebuke to the American decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
However, whatever US ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley may have said, there were plenty of hints in Donald Trump's speech at the UN, and in comments by John Bolton early on in the administration, that it was the intention all along to limit drastically, or end, U.S. participation in global governance via the U.N.

This is not the first time the U.S. has disappointed the international community. It was the Congress failure to ratify the League of Nations back in 1919 that undercut the effectiveness of that first effort at global governance. Tragically, it was this lack of commitment by a rising power that made it easier for Japan and Germany to pull out later, with catastrophic consequences.

Internationalism has only been a popular theme in the U.S. since World War II. Perhaps it was inevitable that the U.S. would drift back to its isolationist roots. We should not rule out the possibility that the Trump administration intends essentially to abandon the U.N. as an institution in 2018, maybe even threaten to pull out. Such an act would not be less shocking than the decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement.

Certainly the contempt for international law and treaties suggested by the Trump administration's unilateral pulling out from the Iran nuclear deal does not bode well.

So what are the implications of American disengagement from the U.N. for South Korea, and for the peninsula as a whole? The immediate response among my Korean friends is dread. After all, Koreans see their country as a "shrimp among whales" that needs constant protection and support from the U.S.

But every crisis is an opportunity, if you have the courage to seize the moment.

No country is more deeply committed to multilateralism in trade, in diplomacy and in security than South Korea, granted that the alliance with the U.S. limits the South's ability to make good on this general sentiment among policy makers. Whether on the left or on the right, there is a remarkable consensus in South Korea concerning good relations with all its neighbors (with the notable exception of North Korea).

What if South Korea proposed that U.N. headquarters be moved from New York City to the Korean Peninsula, perhaps even to Seoul?

To start with, the Trump administration might welcome this proposal. Just look at all the administration has done to undermine multilateral cooperation over the last year. Moreover, there are also progressive voices around the world that suggest the U.S. is no longer qualified to be home to such an institution in light of the country's recent shift to isolationism.

There has been a strong argument for years that a major U.N. institution should be located in Northeast Asia. After all, other than the United Nations University in Tokyo and some smaller offices, The major U.N. institutions are in Geneva (and elsewhere in Europe), Nairobi, New York City and Washington D.C.

Northeast Asia, as the new center of the global economy and a growing source for new cultural production, would be a logical place for the headquarters.

But moving U.N. headquarters to China, or Japan, powerful countries with traditions of unilateralism, would be problematic. South Korea, however, might be a perfect place.

Korea has no tradition of imperialism or colonialism and has been deeply committed to the U.N. from the start. Ban Ki-moon, did not start that tradition. We can trace Korea's centrality in the drive for global governance back to the appeal of King Gojong to the Peace Conference at The Hague in 1907. Koreans viewed this forerunner of the U.N. as the institution that would be most sympathetic for their country as they struggled against imperialism.

The vast majority of South Koreans see multilateral engagement as being in their interest and for this reason South Korea would make a good host.

Such a move could also be tied to the Millennium Development Goals. Korea offers a more open and flexible environment than New York City _ honest debate can be carried out about the future of global governance at a distance from the financial powers of that city.

Finally, reunifying the Korean Peninsula is a critical task for the U.N., so placing its headquarters in South Korea, with the potential to have offices in the North and South, would be a bold way to suggest a direction for the region. The location of the Green Climate Fund in Korea would no doubt make relocating U.N. headquarters to Korea even more attractive because the response to climate change will be increasingly central to global governance.

The potential for such a historic move is real. The question is whether South Korea will have the will to make the proposal.

Emanuel Yi Pastreich is a critic of literature, technology and international affairs. He teaches at Kyung Hee University and works at the Asia Institute. Contact:


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