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PoliticsSouth Korea

South Korea hopes to win UN Security Council seat

June 6, 2023

Seoul sees a seat on the UN Security Council as an opportunity to highlight challenges posed by North Korea. But its bid is expected to face stiff resistance from Pyongyang's allies, notably China and Russia.

A general view shows a United Nations security council meeting
Five of the 10 non-permanent seats on the UN Security Council are available for two-year terms from 2024Image: ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

South Korea is aiming to secure one of the rotating seats on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) at a vote in the General Assembly on Tuesday.   

A successful campaign for one of the 10 non-permanent seats will give Seoul the opportunity to put issues that are critical to South Korea at the top of the UN's agenda.

The result is not a foregone conclusion, however, as China, North Korea and Russia are likely to oppose South Korea's candidacy, in a bid to further their own geopolitical interests.

Five of the 10 non-permanent seats are available for two-year terms from 2024. Algeria and Sierra Leone are likely to take the two seats set aside for Africa, Guyana is the only Latin America candidate, and Slovenia and Belarus will go head-to-head for the single seat representing Eastern Europe. 

Resistance from Russia, China 

That contest will be closely watched, with Russia throwing its support behind the bid by its close ally, Belarus.

And as they are aligned with Russia, China and North Korea are likely to also back Belarus. Other countries with close political, security and economic ties with Moscow and Beijing are also expected to come under pressure to support Minsk. 

Japan will complete its two-year term in 2024 and has agreed to not seek one of the rotating seats for at least a decade in order to allow more nations in the region a greater say in the Security Council. Seoul is the sole candidate for the Asia-Pacific region, but is still required to obtain two-thirds of the 193 member states' votes.  

Gaining the seat would be a diplomatic win and would be welcomed by President Yoon Suk Yeol, who has languished in public opinion polls.

As well as boosting national prestige, a seat would go some way to reversing the disappointment of South Korea losing its seat on the UN Human Rights Council last October, a setback given that Vietnam was voted onto the council despite being a one-party state with a track record of suppressing civil and political rights.  

"Failing to retain that seat was a serious diplomatic mistake that was in part due to the transition to the new government here in Seoul, so joining the Security Council is seen as a way of returning" to the international spotlight, said Park Jung-won, a professor of international law at Dankook University.

"Symbolically, a seat will be very important, but it will give South Korea a chance to show that it can play a constructive role on the global stage," he told DW. 

Seoul hopes to obtain greater international support for key issues including the threats posed by an increasingly aggressive North Korea, which is clearly making advances in its nuclear weapons program and the development of long-range ballistic missiles.

'Challenge' of winning sufficient support 

Key to that aim will be winning the support of Russia and China, Park said, although he admits that will be "challenging" given South Korea's support for the international coalition that has lined up behind Kyiv since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Seoul holding firm to that line is unlikely to earn it any support from Moscow, which importantly holds a veto in the Security Council, as does Beijing.

Those same countries pose the biggest threat to South Korea even obtaining one of the rotating seats on the council, Park stressed.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol
Gaining the seat would be a diplomatic win that would be welcomed by President Yoon Suk YeolImage: Daewoung Kim/REUTERS

"I expect they will express their opposition and call on their allies to do the same, but do they have sufficient votes to block South Korea? It is not clear and it is a question of geopolitics but yes, it is possible they could block the bid." 

Hyobin Lee, an adjunct professor of politics and ethics at Chungnam National University in Daejeon, said Seoul has been working hard to build its international reputation and support for its Security Council bid.  

"Korea has made efforts to become a non-permanent member of the UNSC by engaging with various regional and international organizations," she said.

"These endeavors have included constructive dialogue and meetings with representatives from the African Union, leaders of Pacific island states, the president of Timor-Leste, representatives from Latin American countries and other significant diplomatic engagements."

The campaign for a seat holds "exceptional significance" for South Korea, she added.  

Asia situation 'fraught' 

"The situation in Northeast Asia is increasingly becoming fraught with conflicts, as South Korea finds itself surrounded by North Korea, Russia, China and Japan," Lee said.

"The relationships among these countries are complex and do not bode well for Korean national security.  

"The relationship between Russia and South Korea has deteriorated due to the Russia-Ukraine war, while China is emerging as a prominent player and often opposes the US," she underlined.

"North Korea's behavior has reached an unprecedented low.  

"Given these circumstances, securing a rotating seat on the UNSC would enhance South Korea's diplomatic influence."

Yet even that would not be a panacea to all the geopolitical challenges facing Seoul, she admitted.  

While it would help Yoon and the public approval ratings of his beleaguered government, Lee fears it will have little meaningful impact.  

"Even if South Korea becomes a non-permanent member of the UNSC, it is unlikely to bring about significant changes in terms of its power status in international politics," she suggested. "Instead, its role would be more symbolic."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea