Staying mum on “audacious initiative” for N. Korea in UN address, Yoon misses mark

Posted on : 2022-09-22 17:04 KST Modified on : 2022-09-22 17:04 KST
In doing so, he broke with the format followed by his predecessors, who used the occasion to call on the international community to support inter-Korean efforts for peace
President Yoon Suk-yeol delivers an address at the UN General Assembly in New York on Sept. 20. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol delivers an address at the UN General Assembly in New York on Sept. 20. (Yonhap)

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol did not share his “audacious initiative” policy for North Korea with the international community in his keynote speech before the 77th UN General Assembly in New York on Tuesday.

The address also made no mention of North Korea, peace on the Korean Peninsula, or overcoming Korea’s political division. In that regard, it was markedly different from past UN speeches by South Korean presidents.

Even experts described the situation as “completely unexpected.” How did it come about?

Speaking to reporters in New York, a senior official with the Office of National Security explained, “In terms of messages to North Korea, there is nothing to add to or take away from the audacious initiative that was announced,” referring to Yoon officially presenting his plan during a celebratory address for the Liberation Day holiday on Aug. 15.

North Korea has already rejected the proposed initiative, with Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee Vice Department Director Kim Yo-jong calling it a “replica of ‘denuclearization, opening and 3 000’ raised by traitor Lee Myung Bak 10-odd years ago only to be forsaken as a product of the confrontation with fellow countrymen.”

Analysts suggested that this may have been a consideration along with the decision by the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly to affirm the North’s unwillingness to give up nuclear weapons and to adopt legislation for nuclear armament policies at its seventh meeting, held on Sept. 8.

But these political considerations alone are unable to fully explain why Yoon did not mention his “audacious initiative” at all.

For a South Korean president, a UN General Assembly speech represents the most formal of occasions for reminding UN members of Korea’s divided status and calling on them to support and cooperate with inter-Korean efforts toward peace and reunification. This is why past presidents of both progressive and conservative orientations have taken pains to include their visions for North Korea policy and peace on the peninsula in their UN speeches.

Delivering the first-ever official UN speech by a South Korean president in October 1988, Roh Tae-woo proposed an inter-Korean summit and Northeast Asian peace council to hold discussions on non-aggression and the non-use of weapons.

Delivering her first speech before the 69th General Assembly on Sept. 25, 2014, Park Geun-hye shared her vision for Northeast Asian peace and cooperation and expressed her hope that the “world will take action together to bring down the world’s only remaining barrier of division.”

Lee Myung-bak, who is seen as a role model for the Yoon administration’s North Korea policies and foreign policy in general, also proposed a “grand bargain” involving denuclearization, security, and assistance before the 64th General Assembly in his first UN speech on Sept. 25, 2009. Moon Jae-in called for the General Assembly’s support for the Korean Peninsula peace process on a yearly basis.

This explains the criticism that Yoon’s speech has drawn, with a former senior government official accusing him of “clearly deviating from the practice and tradition of both progressive and conservative administrations in South Korea” and “showing that he is not especially interested in managing or promoting the Korean Peninsula peace process.”

Observers also said that Yoon’s core emphasis on “freedom” and “solidarity” in his speech amounted to a call for “taking sides” in diplomatic terms — which has the potential to backfire.

“President Yoon’s calls for ‘freedom’ and ‘solidarity’ amount to a message that antagonizes many of the non-liberal UN members whose participation and assistance is urgently needed for the Korean Peninsula peace process, including North Korea, China and Russia,” one veteran foreign affairs and national security figure said Wednesday.

The same veteran said the speech was “like a presidential inauguration address, where he seemed to regard the UN as one more forum for domestic politics.”

“With his ‘freedom’ and ‘solidarity’ rhetoric, he appeared to be emphasizing the idea of the Republic of Korea as a ‘global hub state,’ as he described in his governance objectives, but this was a clear case of misjudging his aim, which showed his ignorance of the UN’s basic spirit of regarding humankind as one security community,” they added.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer; Kim Mi-na, staff reporter

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