South Korea's 30th anniversary of UN membership and New Year

Country vows to deliver on diverse demands in democracy

By Kang Kyung-wha

"The blue-white U.N. flags could be sighted almost everywhere … the festive mood is being revived…" So reported the Sept. 18, 1991, edition of The Korea Times on the scenery in downtown Seoul the day before.

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha / Courtesy of Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Such jubilation followed the historic admission of the two Koreas to the United Nations through a unanimous vote taken by the General Assembly in New York. Thus concluded the 42-year-long diplomatic effort by the Republic of Korea since its first attempt in 1949 to gain membership in the global organization.

During the 30 years since then, both the U.N. and the Republic of Korea have made enormous strides. Korea then and now are literally worlds apart, and the decades have seen the U.N. become ever more universal in membership, agenda and range of its work.

But rather than jubilation, it is with a sobering sense of crisis that we greet the 30th anniversary of Korea's membership in the U.N. The world is still in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic. Already weakened even before the pandemic struck, the multilateral enterprise that has sustained the U.N. system is in urgent need of resuscitation.

In just a year, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc around the world, threatening to undo the painstaking work of the U.N. system to promote peace and security, development and human rights. Furthermore, as in all disasters, it has been the weakest and the most vulnerable within and between countries who are suffering the most severe consequences.

Currently, Korea is grappling with its third and biggest surge of COVID-19 infections. This is likely to last much longer than the first or second, and claim many more victims before it winds down.

Still, the key principles and elements of our response have remained the same. We have ramped up our 3Ts ― testing, tracing and treatment ― while steadfastly adhering to the principles of transparency, openness and democratic participation. While procuring vaccines for our people, we are also contributing to multilateral efforts, through the COVAX Facility and Advance Market Commitment (AMC), to ensure equitable and affordable access to the vaccines to all countries.

These are the same principles of multilateralism that the U.N. has embodied. Sadly, the effectiveness of the U.N. has been on the wane in recent years. Growing unilateralism, strategic rivalry between the big powers, disregard of global norms and rising but unmet expectations have all added up to undermine trust in the U.N. The immediate response of countries to the pandemic ― turning insular and closing borders ― has further undermined global solidarity.

However, by exposing the shared vulnerability of humanity, the pandemic has underscored the reason why the world needs a universal body and why all stakeholders must join hands to shore up the relevance and effectiveness of the U.N. Transboundary threats such as COVID-19 and future novel viruses, climate change and nontraditional security threats cannot be overcome without regional and global cooperation.

Throughout this year, as we celebrate Korea's 30 years in the U.N., our diplomatic endeavors will champion this call for a stronger U.N. system and greater international cooperation.

First, in the ongoing battle against COVID-19, we will continue to increase our contribution to the global humanitarian endeavor to meet the immediate needs triggered by COVID-19 and other disasters.

We will collaborate with key partners to roll out "ODA Korea; Building Trust," our international development cooperation program focused on the public health and medical care sector.

We will also work with our neighbors to establish the Northeast Asia Cooperation Initiative for Infectious Disease Control and Public Health, as proposed by President Moon Jae-in at the U.N. General Assembly in September last year.

At the World Health Organization (WHO), UNESCO, and the U.N. headquarters in New York, we will continue to play an active role in the efforts to strengthen the WHO as the lead agency on public health challenges, to build solidarity among global citizens and to mainstream public health security concerns into the work of the U.N. On socio-economic recovery from the devastations of COVID-19, we will actively learn with and from others in implementing the two parts ― digital and green ― of the Korean New Deal for inclusive recovery at the G20, APEC, ASEAN, ASEM and other forums.

Second, on climate change, we are preparing to host the 2nd summit of the P4G, Partnering for Green Growth and Global Goals 2030. This will be an occasion for Korea to step up to the leadership plate on the climate change and development agenda. It will draw global attention to our vision of inclusive growth and carbon neutrality by 2050, and build momentum toward a successful U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) later in the year in the U.K.

Third, on peace and security, we will harness the steadfast support of the international community in staying the course to achieve complete denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.

The engagement with North Korea requires steady commitment and persistence, and the process is long and winding. Nonetheless, we will work closely with the United States and neighboring countries to engage North Korea toward the shared goal of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Thirty years after South and North Korea simultaneously obtained membership, a stable Korean Peninsula that is on its way to permanent peace will surely be a cause for celebration at the U.N.

Meanwhile, Korea will continue to expand its contributions to the U.N.'s efforts to safeguard peace around the world. Korea has been a consistent contributor of troops and resources to U.N. peace missions.

This year, we host the U.N. Peacekeeping Ministerial Conference, where foreign and defense ministers of interested member states will come with concrete contributions to strengthen U.N. peacekeeping efforts. As the largest gathering of ministerial guests to be hosted by Korea, it will solidify Korea's place and role in the U.N.

As 2021 starts out, COVID-19 is an ongoing story. Korea has drawn positive global attention for the way the government and people have handled the crisis. The experience has added another layer to our profile as a model of national transformation that the U.N. system has helped to achieve.

We are proud of the accomplishments and humbled by the challenges that lie ahead. As a government committed first and foremost to safeguarding the safety and wellbeing of our people, we will continue to work hard to deliver on the diverse and divergent demands in our lively democracy where human rights and fundamental freedoms are enjoyed by all. Looking back and forward, we will have it no other way. In doing so, Korea's 30-year-old seat at the global table will also grow wider and taller.

Kang Kyung-wha is the minister of foreign affairs of the Republic of Korea.

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