The United Nations in the Indo-Pacific Era and Competition for Legitimacy in East Asia
Research Reviews | August 29, 2022
Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Chapman University
Minju Kwon, Assistant Professor at Chapman University, analyzes the records of the Security Council, keynote speeches at the UN General Assembly, and official remarks of state representatives and foreign ministers to properly assess the competition for legitimacy taking place between Northeast Asian countries in the United Nations. Dr. Kwon demonstrates that China, Taiwan, South Korea, North Korea, and Japan have all strategically utilized core symbolic sources of the UN to legitimize themselves and delegitimize others with respect to UN memberships and permanent memberships of the UN Security Council. She indicates that as China has attempted to strengthen its legitimacy by emphasizing the principle of non-interference based on the UN Charter, it is needed to thoroughly examine China’s five principles for a peaceful Korean Peninsula.
Throughout the Cold War and the post-Cold War periods, Japan, China, South Korea, and North Korea have officially obtained international recognition as member states of the United Nations (UN). Nevertheless, these Northeast Asian states have tried to consolidate their internal and external legitimacy by advancing their influence and status within the UN. Existing studies have rarely examined Northeast Asian states’ statements on UN peace and security agendas in a broader context of international relations (IR) theories, specifically from the perspective of social constructivism. I argue that Northeast Asian states, which all are “incomplete” sovereign states based on the Western conceptualization of modern sovereignty, have competed for legitimacy to further international recognition in the UN. China, Taiwan, South Korea, North Korea, and Japan have all strategically utilized the UN Charter––a core symbolic resource of the UN––to legitimize themselves and delegitimize others with respect to UN and United Nations Security Council (UNSC) memberships. To prove this argument, I analyze the records of the UNSC, keynote speeches at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), and official remarks of state representatives and foreign ministers.
Incomplete Sovereign State
The UN operates with symbolic powers.  Hurd argues that states compete for symbolic recognition in the UNSC, particularly in three forms: agenda, membership, and the label of “peacekeeping.”  Securing legitimacy by using the symbolic collective goods provided by the UN is an important task not only for the UN Secretariat and its affiliated institutions but also for member states. In order to understand Northeast Asian states’ competition for legitimacy in the UN, it is necessary to consider their common regional conditions. First, Northeast Asian countries have competed for recognition from the international society due to the “incompleteness” of their sovereignty. In Northeast Asia, “internal rival states” (China/Taiwan and South Korea/North Korea) and the “abnormal state” (Japan), despite their concrete internal sovereignty, are competing over “the scopes of international legal sovereignty, territory, and people, which are the components of modern state sovereignty.”  Thus, a key component of the foreign policy strategies of these states has been seeking “full sovereignty” or “recognition from other states or the international society.”  Second, in the absence of comprehensive regional organizations, the UN has functioned as a major venue for Northeast Asian states to compete for legitimacy. Globally, it has been a general trend to establish and develop regional governance mechanisms.  In contrast, due to their regional rivalries, Northeast Asian states still tend to resolve their regional problems via “universal international organizations and diplomatic systems” or “cooperation with offshore actors” rather than regional organizations.  These two international political conditions have influenced Northeast Asian states’ competitive pursuit of legitimacy through the UN.
Legitimacy Competition over UN Membership
For Northeast Asian states with incomplete sovereignty, UN membership is key to gaining legitimacy that is externally recognized. In the case of South Korea and North Korea, both sides joined the UN simultaneously and separately in September 1991. This simultaneous entry into UN membership ended their claims to be the only representative and legitimate government for Koreans at the UN. Nevertheless, during the Park Geun-hye administration, South Korea attempted to delegitimize North Korea's UN membership. In South Korea’s keynote speech at the 71st UNGA in 2016, former minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-se referred to North Korea as a “serial offender” who had violated obligations in the UN Charter, especially its pledge to comply with UNSC decisions.  South Korea then called for serious reconsideration of North Korea’s qualification as a “peace-loving UN member.” Even if it was only a tactical statement intended to pressure North Korea into changing its policies without a genuine intent to deprive North Korea of its UN membership, South Korea delegitimized North Korea by referring to the qualifications for a legitimate UN membership. Of course, different administrations of South Korea take different positions regarding North Korean issues in the UN.
North Korea has also delegitimized South Korea as well as the United States at the UN. Kim Song, Head of the North Korea Delegation, in his keynote speech at the 76th UNGA in 2021, stated that it was a tragedy that Koreans were divided by foreign powers and separately joined the UN.  North Korea claimed that the root causes of the constant tension on the Korean Peninsula were the United States’s hostile policies toward itself as well as South Korea’s prioritization of its alliance over “the harmony of the nation.” However, rather than questioning the UN membership of the United States and South Korea, North Korea emphasized that these two countries’ actions had run counter to the UN mission.
Furthermore, North Korea criticized the structure and behavior of the UNSC, stating that it had not represented the interests of the international community but “degenerated into an ‘inner room’ for the privileged few groups.” North Korea argued that it is a violation of UN principles to impose western values and rules unilaterally in the name of democracy or human rights. North Korea insisted that the UNSC needs urgent reforms to be a fair and responsible institution based on “the principle of sovereign equality and respect for equal rights and self-determination of the people.” It also asserted that the UNSC should expand its representation of developing countries and revise its regulations so that the UNGA can reject UNSC resolutions. Particularly at the 75th UNGA in November 2020, North Korea insisted that Japan, which has not apologized despite its unprecedented crimes against humanity, is not qualified to be a permanent member of the UNSC . These statements demonstrate that North Korea has continuously emphasized the legitimacy of the UN Charter while delegitimizing the UNSC.
China’s Competition for Legitimacy
Since the 2000s, China has exercised its veto power or abstained in the UNSC with respect to international peace and security agendas outside of Northeast Asia. China has stated that it opposed arbitrary intervention by external forces on internal issues of sovereign states, unilateral enforcement (including illegal sanctions), and the politicization of humanitarian issues. It has also expressed concerns over security blocs centered on the United States. China has sought to bolster its symbolic resources by emphasizing the UN Charter’s principle of non-interference in domestic affairs, while at the same time highlighting a Chinese way that differs from the approaches of the United States and other powers.
For Korean Peninsula issues as part of regional agendas, China has taken a more complex position compared to its strict position regarding its internal sovereign issues. When the UNSC reached a voting stage for a resolution on North Korean nuclear and missile issues between January 2016 and February 2022, China never exercised its veto power. When discussing the UNSC resolutions, China has repeatedly presented and justified its approach as follows: First, its consistent goal is to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Second, in terms of means, the issues should be resolved via dialogue and consultation. Third, sanctions against North Korea should not worsen the humanitarian situation in North Korea, nor should they affect people's lives or affect daily economic and trade activities. Fourth, some countries are required to stop strengthening military deployments or conducting large-scale military exercises, given that such behaviors perpetuate a vicious circle of confrontation in the Korean Peninsula. Finally, China opposes the UNSG addressing the situation of human rights in North Korea.
It is notable that China’s recent vote on the North Korean non-proliferation issue shows some changes. In May 2022, China along with Russia vetoed a resolution proposed by the United States at the UNSC (S/2022/431). As competition between the United States and China will likely intensify in the future, we need to examine China’s potential position concerning sanctions against North Korea in the UN.
This analysis displays that these states have had aspirations to acquire not only material power but also nonmaterial and normative power in the Indo-Pacific era. In fact, these states’ normative principles and positions do not necessarily match their actual behavior. For instance, in regard to UN peacekeeping missions, China has been flexible in its principles of non-intervention and peaceful resolutions. Nonetheless, this analysis of Northeast Asian states’ competition for legitimacy based on their statements provides an in-depth understanding of international organizations that incorporates diverse actors, including the so-called non-Western states.
We can offer a more accurate explanation of Northeast Asian states’ aspirations and competition over UN and UNSC memberships by considering both the general behavior of countries seeking legitimacy in the UN and the unique regional conditions of Northeast Asia. Furthermore, this simultaneous consideration of generalizable IR theories and specific historical contexts––not a simple reduction to one of them––will help to understand better the competition for legitimacy between the United States and China as well as the core principles of peace and security that China professes in the UN.■
 Research is conducted with the support of the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies Seoul National University unification building project "Peace and Korean Peninsula in the Indo-pacific era,"This is the summarized version of the North Korea-related information in the Journal of Peace and Unification Studies Volume 14, 1 (2022).
 Ian Hurd, 2002, “Legitimacy, Power, and the Symbolic Life of the UN Security Council,” Global Governance 8, 1: 38.
 Ian Hurd, 2002, “Legitimacy, Power, and the Symbolic Life of the UN Security Council,” Global Governance8, 1: 39..
 Chaesung Chun, 2017, “Dong-bug-a-ui-bul-wan-jeon-han ju-gwon-gug-ga-deul-gwa bog-hab-jeog mu-jeong-bu-sang-tae, (Incomplete sovereignty of Northeast Asian states, and complex anarchy),” World Politics 26, 87.
 Chaesung Chun, 2017, “Dong-bug-a-ui-bul-wan-jeon-han ju-gwon-gug-ga-deul-gwa bog-hab-jeog mu-jeong-bu-sang-tae, (Incomplete sovereignty of Northeast Asian states, and complex anarchy),” World Politics 26, 109.
 Dong-joon Jo, 2014, “Dong-a-si-a yeog-nae mun-je-hae-gyeol bang-sig-ui teug-su-seong, (A Quantitative Comparison of Regional Governance),” World Politics 21, 241.
 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2016, “71st Session of the UN General Assembly” https://overseas.mofa.go.kr/un-ko/brd/m_24367/list.do (Accessed: August 28, 2022)
 Permanent Representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the United Nation, 2021, “Statement by Head of the DPRK Delegation H.E. Mr. Kim Song, Permanent Representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the United Nations at the General Debate of the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly” https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/10.0010/20210927/f9hI1UVcyVQ6/Ina2tpqa5rlW_en.pdf, (Accessed: August 28, 2022)
 United Nations Digital Library, 2020, “General Assembly official records, 75th session : 28th plenary meeting” https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3926506?ln=en (Accessed: August 30, 2022)
■ Minju Kwon is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Chapman University. She is also a faculty member for the Master of Arts in International Studies Program as well as an affiliated faculty member of the Department of Peace Studies. She specializes in international relations, comparative politics, and gender studies, with a regional focus on Asia. Specifically, she studies state and non-state actors’ compliance with international law with a particular emphasis on international human rights and humanitarian law. In her book project, Blacklisted Rebels: Commitment to Child Rights in Armed Conflict, she examines conditions under which rebel groups sign and comply with United Nations action plans for ending and preventing violations of child rights in armed conflict. After receiving her Ph.D. in Political Science with a minor in Gender Studies from the University of Notre Dame, she served as a postdoctoral fellow of the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies at Notre Dame.
■ Typeset by Junghoo Park , Research Associate
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