South Korea’s Failed Reelection to UN Human Rights Council Prompts Public Debate

South Korea’s Failed Reelection to UN Human Rights Council Prompts Public Debate
General view at the opening of the UN Human Rights Council's 44th session in Geneva on June 30, 2020. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)
Jessica Mao

The recent loss of South Korea’s bid for reelection to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has prompted a wave of contentious debates and criticism in the country’s local media. In particular, it was the first time since the establishment of the Council in 2006 that South Korea lost its reelection.

The announcement was made at the U.N. General Assembly on Oct. 11 that South Korea was one place short of securing its reelection with 123 votes, coming in fifth behind Bangladesh (160), the Maldives (154), Vietnam (145), and Kyrgyzstan (126).

The UNHRC holds an election every year for about one-third of the seats in the 47-member Council, and there were four seats available for eight candidates from the Asia-Pacific region this year.

One of the leading newspapers in South Korea, Dong-a Ilbo, suggests that the country’s loss of Council membership means it no longer has access to a global stage for discussing resolutions about the Korean Peninsula and other human rights issues.
Chosun Ilbo, the oldest daily newspaper in South Korea, has described the country’s reelection loss as a “diplomatic tragedy” in an article published on Oct. 12.
Furthermore, an official from the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the U.N. told Chosun Ilbo that the election result was completely unexpected, and that it would be nearly impossible to know who didn’t vote for South Korea as it was a secret ballot.
“Before the election, more than 140 countries had expressed their support for South Korea orally and in writing, but the results were revealed to be a dozen votes short,” said the official.
Officials from South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also said that the country was “unable to select and concentrate” as the government was participating in 14 international organizations’ elections simultaneously, according to JoongAng Ilbo, one of the largest newspapers in the country.
However, Oh Joon, former South Korean Ambassador to the U.N., believes that there were different causes for the failed re-election.
“The reason for this defeat is not so much that the Korean government is not qualified in terms of human rights, but because the Korean government has already served as a member many times,” he told JoongAng Ilbo.

‘Moon Administration Was Submissive to North Korea’: Officials

According to an article titled, “South Korea loses UN Human Rights Council seat,” published by The Korea Times on Oct. 12, South Korean conservatives raised concerns before the election that the previous administration’s stance of being “submissive to North Korea” could prevent the country from being re-elected to the UNHRC.
In particular, Joo Ho-young, People Power Party floor leader, wrote on his Facebook before the election that “the failure has already been expected.”
“[Under the Moon administration], South Korea did not participate in joint proposals for U.N. resolutions condemning the North’s human rights crimes since 2019, while the [then-ruling] Democratic Party of Korea used its majority in the National Assembly to pass a law that bans sending anti-North leaflets across the border, which undermines freedom of expression.
“[The previous administration] abandoned the coalition for human rights and freedom for the sake of a handshake with the North,” said Joo Ho-young.
Chosun Ilbo reported that some officials from the South Korean diplomatic community believe that the outcome of this election could be a reflection of how the international community perceives the Moon Jae-in administration’s performance on global human rights issues over the past five years.
In particular, Moon’s administration, in an attempt to further its “Peace Initiative” with North Korea, refused to co-sponsor UNHRC’s annual resolution condemning North Korea’s human rights violations for four consecutive years from 2019 to 2022.
Furthermore, Moon’s administration passed the “Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act,” also known as the “Anti-leaflet law,” in December 2020 to prevent South Koreans from sending materials opposing the Kim Jong Un regime to North Korea. The law went into effect on March 30, 2021, amid criticism.
JoongAng Ilbo, in an article published on Oct. 12, also noted that Moon’s administration adopted a position of ambiguity on issues such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Beijing’s suppression of Uyghurs and Hong Kong.
Despite the former administration’s soft approach to foreign policy, however, according to an article titled, “Reasons for S. Korea’s Loss of UN Human Rights Council Membership,” published by Dong-a Ilbo on Oct. 14, the outcome of this re-election presents a challenge for Yoon’s administration as Yoon tries to uphold “value-based diplomacy.”
In particular, the article noted that the emergence of a “new Cold War geopolitical environment” in the world, alongside the failed reelection, poses an imminent threat to South Korea’s ability to continue serving as a key pillar in the international community.