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Korea at the UN, a look back

Long before Seoul rolled out the red carpet for the leaders of the G20, before the UN had a South Korean Secretary-General, and before the iconic “hoop boy” welcomed the world’s athletes to the 1988 Olympic Games, six Koreans set out on a historic mission that would lay the foundation for Korea’s involvement in modern international diplomacy.

In an interview with Yonhap News on January 16, the former Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations Jeon Sang-jin recalled his arrival in New York in October 1952 as a member of the South Korean delegation to the Seventh Session of the UN General Assembly. With the Korean question added to the assembly’s official agenda, the already-protracted armistice negotiations moved from Panmunjom to Manhattan, and for the first time since the outbreak of war in June 1950, the issue of the Korean Peninsula had become the subject of multilateral dialogue.

Foreign Affairs Minister Byeon Yeong-tae (center) signs the ROK-US Mutual Defense Treaty on June 27, 1953
Foreign Affairs Minister Byeon Yeong-tae (center) signs the ROK-US Mutual Defense Treaty on June 27, 1953 (Photo: Yonhap News).

The deceptively simple task of representing the South Korean state before the international community fell to Foreign Affairs Minister Byeon Yeong-tae and his delegation. As Jeon recounted in his interview, their main priority was to ensure that South Korea’s position of “no armistice without unification” received proper and sufficient consideration throughout the negotiation process. But with member states divided on the basis of their relationships to the Soviet Union and the United States, and the delegation’s rights and benefits limited by its observer state status, it was unclear whether they would even be granted the opportunity to address the assembly.

Jeon recounts the tenacity of Byeon and his team in the face of continuous challenges. With no diplomatic mission in place at the UN headquarters, they hunkered down in a hotel room where they typed out official documents and diplomatic transmissions on a portable typewriter. With no established diplomatic protocol to guide the process, Byeon personally approached representative after representative in search of support.

With the American delegation, Byeon repeatedly requested assistance in asserting South Korea’s position during the talks, while also pushing for prompt finalization of the delayed mutual defense treaty. He also appealed to the Thai representative for support in obtaining permission to participate in the meeting of the Political and Security Committee. With his help, Byeon secured both a place in the proceedings and the rare opportunity to deliver an address.

Foreign Affairs Minister Byeon Yeong-tae (third from right) and the accompanying Korean delegation leave for the Geneva Conference on April 19, 1954
Foreign Affairs Minister Byeon Yeong-tae (third from right) and the accompanying Korean delegation leave for the Geneva Conference on April 19, 1954 (Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism).

According to Jeon, the labors of Byeon and his team continued up until the very hour of the address on November 3. Byeon had spent the entire night writing and rewriting the speech, making sure to add refutations concerning accusations against South Korea that had come up during the previous day. When asked to edit out potentially controversial remarks from his draft moments before his turn to speak, Byeon responded with apologies. He explained the difficulties of revising a text that had already been printed and reiterated his imperative to communicate South Korea’s stance as truthfully and clearly as possible.

This stance, in addition to opposing the conception of any armistice that would allow for the continued partition of Korea, opposed the POW repatriation policy proposed by neutral state India. India’s proposal had been drafted as a compromise between forced repatriation as suggested by the USSR, and voluntary repatriation suggested by the United States.

Although the South Korean delegation spoke out against the proposal and its relegation of repatriation oversight to a neutral committee, the proposal passed by a unanimous vote on December 3, 1952. Jeon describes Byeon’s frustrations at being unable to find a single representative to share South Korea’s position. But with no further opportunities to address the assembly, the session ended, the delegation headed home, and the final armistice agreement was signed on July 27, 1953. Despite this, South Korea remained committed to its position, made evident by President Rhee Syngman's refusal to sign.
 
Jeon Sang-jin, former Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations, speaks with Yonhap about his visit to to the Seventh Session of the UN General Assembly in 1952
Jeon Sang-jin, former Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations, speaks with Yonhap about his visit to to the Seventh Session of the UN General Assembly in 1952  (Photo: Yonhap News)

Jeon told Yonhap News that, for the members of the 1952 delegation, this first foray into the international arena served as a clear lesson on the dynamics that characterize diplomacy. Their efforts made them wise to the apparent and hidden tensions that mark all bilateral relationships and also to the volatility of constantly changing political dynamics.

“In an environment defined by the primacy of national interest, we learned how difficult and yet how important it is to build and maintain substantive relationships,” said Jeon.

The Observer Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations, established in 1951, became a full-fledged Permanent Mission with Korea’s accession to the UN in September 1991.

By Kwon Jungyun
Korea.net Staff Writer

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