UN Security Council Helped Calm Tension on Korean Peninsula

One of the most perilous situations of the past year was the conflict on the Korean Peninsula that was brought to the UN Security Council in what was the last week of its 2010 session.(1)

On Saturday December 18, Vitaly Churkin, the Russian Federation Ambassador to the UN, requested an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to be held on Saturday.

In what Ambassador Churkin called “a departure from the practice of the Council”, the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, as President of the Security Council for the month of December, declined to hold a meeting until the following day. (2) Instead she scheduled consultations to start at 11 a.m. on Sunday, December 19, with a view to the possibility of holding a formal meeting later in the day.

On Sunday, 50 or more journalists gathered at the stakeout outside the UN Security Council. Ambassadors and other representatives of the 15 nations on the council gradually filtered into the Security Council chambers. Also arriving were representatives of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), of the Republic of Korea (South Korea), and B. Lynn Pasco, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs.

US Ambassador Rice, acting as the President of the Council for December, arrived at around 11:20 am.

The Security Council members held bi-laterals, closed consultations, took a short lunch break, and had a closed meeting as part of its emergency session.

Little actual information was provided to journalists waiting in the press stakeout area about what was happening. The emergency session came to a close, approximately eight hours after it had begun. When the emergency session was over, Ambassador Churkin came to the press stakeout to report to journalists. He said that council members had failed to reach the unanimous agreement needed to issue a press statement. The draft press statement the Russian Federation had proposed had been revised at least twice, but still did not achieve the unanimous agreement needed to issue it as a document from the Council.

In the draft press statement, the Russian Federation urged the two Koreas to show restraint in their actions. Also the draft proposed that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appoint an envoy to help the two Koreas to peacefully resolve the problems causing the current crisis situation. The blog “Turtle Bay” reported obtaining a copy of the original Russian Federation draft statement.(3) Here is the reported draft posted on the blog:

“The Members of the Security Council have considered in an emergency meeting of the Council on 18 December 2010 a dangerous aggravation of the situation in the Korean peninsula. They heard a briefing by _____________________.

The Members of the Security Council called upon all parties concerned to exercise maximum restraint and to avoid any steps which could cause a further escalation of tension in the Korean peninsula and the entire region.

The Members of the Security Council stressed the need to undertake efforts to ensure a de-escalation of tension in the relations between the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, resumption of dialogue and resolution of all problems dividing them exclusively through peaceful diplomatic means.

The Members of the Security Council requested the Secretary-General of the United Nations to dispatch without delay his special representative to the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to consult on urgent measures to settle peacefully the current crisis situation in the Korean peninsula.

The Members of the Security Council also requested the Secretary-General of the United Nations to stay in close coordination with other countries concerned in this regard.”

In response to objections raised by some of the other Council members, Ambassador Churkin told journalists he had revised the statement. The blog Inner City Press reported that in one of the revised drafts, Ambassador Churkin, the Chinese representative, and others on the Security Council had agreed to wording that said that the members of the Security Council “condemned the shelling” of 23 November 2010. (4) The draft did not attribute blame for the shelling, reflecting the fact that both sides had done shelling.

The Council, however, was not able to come to an agreement on the text. Ambassador Churkin expressed his regret that the emergency meeting had not been called on Saturday afternoon as he had requested. He felt that would have provided more time for Council members to work out wording they could all agree on.

In response to a question to him from a journalist about the danger of what was happening on the Korean Peninsula, Ambassador Churkin responded(5):

“As you know, I don’t even want to go into the general subject….I know its very complicated. This area has very complicated geography, very complicated geopolitical history if you will.”

“I don’t even want to go into the general issue of whether or not it is prudent to conduct military exercises in a disputed area, but we know it is better to refrain from doing this exercise at this time. That is why we asked the Republic of Korea to refrain from conducting this exercise at this particular time.”

Ambassador Churkin stressed the seriousness of the situation. Also he explained that there appeared to have been general agreement among council members for his proposal that the Secretary General appoint an envoy to work with the two Koreas and other involved countries to negotiate a means to settle the disputes causing the crisis situation. Ambassador Churkin stressed the importance of the Secretary General appointing an envoy, especially since some of the parties were not willing to go back to the six party talks. Thus there was no other means for a diplomatic process to be implemented, “no game plan.”

Despite the fact that the Council had not come to agree on a press statement which also would have supported the appointment of an envoy, Ambassador Churkin expressed his hope that the Secretary General would go ahead and appoint an envoy. Also he expressed his hope that the Security Council consultations and meeting, even though it hadn’t reached an agreement on a press statement, would have an impact to lower the tension in the region.

A little while later, Ambassador Rice came to the stakeout. Though she held the rotating presidency of the Security Council for December, she only spoke in her national capacity presenting the views of the US on the issue. She indicated that the US insisted on a “clear-cut condemnation of the November 23rd attack by DPRK on the ROK”, but that there was no “unanimity on that point” among members of the Security Council.

When Ambassador Rice was asked about the proposal to ask the Secretary General to appoint an envoy, she responded(6):

“I think there would have been probably room for agreement in some form of recommendation that the Secretary General consider what he might be able to do in his good offices capacity.”

The next day, Monday, December 20, Wang Min, the Chinese deputy Permanent Representative spoke to the press at a stakeout. He said,”Yesterday, China supported Russia’s proposal to call for an urgent meeting of the Security Council (on) the situation in the Korean Peninsula….The meeting was positive and of great importance.”(7)

Also on this Monday, South Korea held its military exercise firing into the contested waters. North Korea refrained from responding militarily. (8)

On Tuesday December 21, at an informal meeting of the Security Council, Ambassador Wang, expressed his view of the seriousness of the situation that had developed on the Korean Peninsula. He said that the tension on the Korean Peninsula between the North and South had been very high “especially in the past two days it came close to fighting a war.” (9)

At the noon briefing held on Monday, December 20, the day following the emergency Security Council meeting, journalists asked Farhan Haq, the Acting Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, about the possibility of an envoy being sent to the Korean Peninsula by the Secretary General. Despite the unanimity expressed at the emergency Security Council session about the Secretary General appointing an envoy, the idea met with reluctance on the part of the spokesperson for the Secretary General. Following is an excerpt from the press conference on December 20 with the deputy spokesperson for the Secretary General (10):

Question: (Y)esterday in this all-day Security Council meeting about DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] or the Korean peninsula, both Ambassador [Vitaly] Churkin, Ambassador [Susan] Rice and they both seemed to say that all 15 members were supportive of the idea of the Secretary-General naming a Special Envoy to the Korean peninsula. They didn’t end up adopting a statement because of disputes about who to blame or who to condemn. But is it something that, I guess… what does the Secretary-General think of that idea and is he actually going to name an envoy?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson: Well, first of all, the Secretary-General did send Mr. [B. Lynn] Pascoe earlier this year to the Korean peninsula, and so he has already taken some initiative regarding efforts to deal with the question of good offices in the Korean peninsula itself. However, in terms of appointing an envoy, what we are doing at this stage is waiting to see what kind of unified decision, if any, the Security Council can take on the question of the Korean peninsula. As you yourself pointed out just now, they didn’t come to any decision yesterday, and I don’t know whether there will be a statement by the Security Council. But if there is one, we would respond to that.

Question: But there is… I guess the question was asked of Ambassador Churkin whether he thought that the Secretary-General should go forward. In the sense of, are you saying that you can only go forward if you have some kind of press statement or do the statements of the President of the Council saying…

Acting Deputy Spokesperson: No, no, as I pointed out, Mr. Pascoe went, I believe in February of this year, as it was. So, it’s not dependent on action by the Security Council. However, in this case, the Security Council had been working out different types of language, and we would wait to see what it is that they have to say before responding to it.

Question: So has Secretary-General completely ruled out appointing a Special Envoy for DPRK?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson: No, it’s just fitting at this stage for a matter that’s under consideration by the Security Council for us to wait to see what it is, what decision that they come to. Yes, Khaled?

Question: What we’re saying is that what is under consideration by the Council and the statement, and concerning, as you know, Matthew said, who is to blame and who is to condemn, but both Mr. Churkin and Mrs. Rice said yesterday there was agreement on the need for an envoy, different from the task taken by Mr. Pascoe in February. So, what does the Secretary-General feel about that?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson: Well, if there is an agreement among Council members, we are sure that that can manifest itself in a unified position taken by the Security Council and we’d await that.

Question: But he said he (the Security Council -ed) had a unified position on the envoy, but not on the condemnation issue. That’s what he said.

Acting Deputy Spokesperson: Well, like I said, if they can agree on any particular point, we would await that particular agreement and respond in kind.”

This reluctance to appoint an envoy for the Korean Peninsula expressed by the Secretary General’s Deputy Spokesman could be considered all the more surprising when taking into account an interview with Ban Ki-moon in November 2006 after Ban Ki-moon was chosen to be the UN Secretary General (for the 2007-2011 term). In the interview published in the Korean newspaper Hankyoreh, Ban said that once he was Secretary General, he would appoint an envoy to help to resolve the tension on the Korean Peninsula. The Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary General, however, now responding to questions from journalists, said that Ban would wait for the Security Council to take action on the issue of the envoy. Following is an excerpt from the November 2006 interview with Ban Ki moon. Professor Moon Chung-in of Yonsei University is asking the questions for Hankyoreh(11):

“Q: It is unfortunate that the North Korean nuclear situation has worsened, despite your will to resolve it as the Foreign Minister. The North Korean nuclear issue is not one limited to the Korean Peninsula or North Korea, but rather is a global issue and one of importance to the UN. Are you stressing this resolution of this issue as Secretary-General only because you could not resolve it as Foreign Minister?

A: Secretary-General Kofi Annan also carried a large interest in [resolving] the North Korean issue and appointed a special envoy to North Korea, but he could not set foot in the country during his 10-year tenure. As for Special Envoy to North Korea Maurice Strong, he was implicated in an unsavory affair and resigned midway through his term. I will appoint a politician or diplomat with the confidence of the international community, someone who has the trust of both North and South Korea to actively push the issue forward. The envoy must be one to impel the six-party talks to action when they stagnate, and must be prepared to play a direct role when necessary. I am even ready to intervene directly when intervention is called for.

Q: The UN created the North South cease-fire agreement. Although both Koreas, the U.S.’s and China’s roles are important in transforming the cease-fire regime into a peaceful order, the UN must participate to reach a legal and systematic conclusion. What plans do you have to spur the creation of a peaceful order?

A: Fundamentally, this issue must be discussed between the U.S. and North Korea, but the UN must decide how to help as it is inextricably linked with the problem, and UN specialists must come to an agreement.”

Under Article 99 of the UN Charter, the Secretary General has the ability to act in situations where there is a danger to international peace and security(12). He can ask the Security Council to act in a situation. Hence it is all the more surprising that Secretary General Ban would insist on waiting for the Security Council to act, when it is his prerogative under the UN Charter to ask the Security Council to act. Similarly, he has the ability in what is referred to as “his good offices” to send an envoy to help to resolve tension in a volatile situation, an action Ban has taken with other situations, but which he has not taken with regard to the escalating tension on the Korean Peninsula. As the Deputy Spokesman noted, Ban did send some of his staff to Pyongyang in February 2010, so he recognizes he is not dependent on the Security Council to undertake a peace initiative. (13) Yet in the four years of his tenure thus far as UN Secretary General, he has not yet acted on the commitment he made in November 2006 to appoint an envoy to engage in efforts to resolve the tension on the Korean Peninsula.

Despite the fact that the Security Council did not issue a press statement, and the fact the Secretary General has not appointed an envoy, the actions by Ambassador Churkin on behalf of the Russian Federation and others on the Security Council did succeed in bringing international public attention to the crisis situation on the Korean Peninsula.

Ambassador Churkin took the initiative to request an emergency meeting of the Security Council to ask South Korea to refrain from its planned firing drill on the contested waters surrounding Yeonpyeong Island, and to ask North Korea to refrain from responding.

Both the Chinese and Russian foreign ministries sent representatives to both North and South Korea to urge them to settle their disputes via dialogue.

Also a number of articles appeared in the English language Chinese press on the crisis situation, some of which were critical of the provocative actions taken by South Korea and of the US government for encouraging such actions. (14)

As Ambassador Churkin told journalists after the December 19 Security Council meeting, “I would like to think that this meeting of the Council will have an impact on the situation.”

Looking at the subsequent events, it appears that indeed the fact that the Security Council held an emergency session on December 19 did help to support a process to calm the escalating tension on the Korean Peninsula, at least temporarily.


1.Ronda Hauben, “Can the Security Council Act to Calm Rising Tension on Korean Peninsula?”, Dec 19, 2010, blog at taz.de


2. Churkin refers to Rule 2 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure for the Security Council as the basis for expecting the Security Council to be called to meet on Saturday in response to his request. Rule 2 reads:
“The President shall call a meeting of the Security Council at the request of any member of the Security Council.”


3. Turtle Bay blog, December 18, 2010 http://turtlebay.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/12/18/russia_pushes_deeper_un_role_in_mediating_crisis_in_the_koreas

4. Inner City Press, December 20, 2011.


5. Vitaly Churkin, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, at a Media Stakeout on the Situation on the Korean Peninsula, 19 December 2010, (start 06:14)


6. Remarks by President of the Security Council, Ambassador Susan E. Rice, United States Permanent Representative, at a Media Stakeout on the Situation on the Korean Peninsula, 19 December 2010


7. Ambassador Wang Min, Deputy Permanent Representative of the People’s Republic of China, at a Media Stakeout on the Situation on the Korean Peninsula, 20 December 2010


8. “Commentary: Applause for North Korea’s restraint”, Global Times, December 22, 2010


9. “Korea Tensions came close to ‘war’”, said China Diplomat, December 22, 2010,


10.“Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General”, Farhan Haq, Acting Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, UN, December 20, 2010.


11. ”[Interview] Next UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon,” Interviewer Moon Chung-in, Hankyoreh, November 3, 2006, translated into English by Daniel Rakov.


12. “The Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security”, Article 99, UN Charter


13. Ronda Hauben, “UN-North Korea talks hint at a peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula”, Global Times, February 21, 2010


14. See for example:
“S. Korea playing by dangerous cliff”, Editorial, Global Times, December 23, 2010.


“Korean brothers advised not to go to war game”, People’s Daily Online, December 21, 2010.


L. Hongmei, “US, insidious harm to Korean Peninsula”, People’s Daily Online, December 21, 2010.


“New ROK drills add to tension on peninsula”, People’s Daily Online, December 27, 2010


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