U.N. Brief

Get your insider’s guide to the biggest diplomatic event of the year as world leaders convene at the annual United Nations General Assembly. FP’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer deliver a daily newsletter to your inbox for a week known as the “Super Bowl for diplomats.”

Stalled North Korea Talks Show UNGA’s Limits

World leaders have little to celebrate on the 30th anniversary of South Korea and North Korea joining the United Nations.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in addresses the U.N. General Assembly.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in addresses the U.N. General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York on Sept. 21. Eduardo Munoz/Pool/Getty Images

Welcome back to U.N. Brief, Foreign Policy’s pop-up guide to this year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Today is the last day of the newsletter as the high-level week winds down.

Here’s what’s on tap for today: North Korea nuclear diplomacy is going nowhere fast, a snapshot of the global economy before and after the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and an interview with the NATO secretary-general.

If you would like to receive U.N. Brief in your inbox in the future, please sign up here.

Welcome back to U.N. Brief, Foreign Policy’s pop-up guide to this year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Today is the last day of the newsletter as the high-level week winds down.

Here’s what’s on tap for today: North Korea nuclear diplomacy is going nowhere fast, a snapshot of the global economy before and after the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and an interview with the NATO secretary-general.

If you would like to receive U.N. Brief in your inbox in the future, please sign up here.


Stalled Nuclear Talks Cast Shadow Over Anniversary

In September 1991, North and South Korea were granted U.N. membership as separate countries, one of a handful of diplomatic breakthroughs that heralded the end of Cold War hostilities. At the time, optimism abounded on the Korean Peninsula.

Then-South Korean President Roh Tae-woo, hailed the move as an important step toward eventual reunification, citing Germany as a model. “Imperfect as it may be, the separate membership of the two Koreas in the United Nations is an important interim step on the road to national unification,” Roh said in an U.N. address. “It took the two Germanys 17 years to combine their U.N. seats. I sincerely hope that it will not take as long for the two Korean seats to become one.”

Three decades later… Any glimmer of optimism is gone. On the 30th anniversary of the countries’ U.N. membership this week, there is little cause for celebration. Propped up by China, North Korea remains the world’s most closed-off authoritarian state and is stubbornly building a nuclear weapons program as waves of nonproliferation negotiations have run aground.

Tensions are heating up across the Asia-Pacific region as U.S.-China relations hit a new low and U.S. allies in the region, including Seoul, amass military equipment in a new arms race. Case in point: North Korea conducted a long-range ballistic missile test earlier this month, and South Korea responded with a ballistic missile test of its own.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult going forward to make a case for returning to denuclearization and disarmament talks with North Korea when it’s clear the rest of the region is arming up,” Jenny Town, an expert on North Korea at the Stimson Center, told U.N. Brief.

Ghosted. Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s glitzy summits and letters with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, combined with South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s efforts to thaw relations with Pyongyang, failed to move the dial on denuclearization. And what about U.S. President Joe Biden’s approach?

The Biden administration has signaled it is ready to restart talks with North Korea but so far has met deafening silence, a senior U.S. official conceded this week. “We’ve said repeatedly that we’re prepared to meet with the North Koreans without preconditions, and we would hope that they would respond positively on this,” Erica Barks-Ruggles, the top State Department envoy for international organizations, told reporters earlier this week. “But sadly, to date, they have not.”

Once bitten, twice shy. Town said Kim could be leery to reengage in diplomacy after his summits with Trump ended in an impasse. “There’s a once bitten, twice shy situation going on here,” she said. “The last thing Kim Jong Un needs at a time when there are domestic economic hardships and COVID-related hardships is another high-profile diplomatic failure.”

Stalled out. The lack of movement on North Korea’s denuclearization showcases the limits of the U.N. General Assembly as a venue for kick-starting tough diplomacy. Unlike other pressing security issues—the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, Afghanistan—no major meetings were organized on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

The Biden team—led by Sung Kim, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea—is palpably frustrated. “We are serious about this,” Mark Lambert, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Japan and Korea said at a recent virtual event, reported Voice of America. “What would you have us do? Catapult Sung into North Korea and say I’m here to negotiate? You can’t do that. You’ve got to have the other side willing to meet with you,” Lambert said.

An UNGA opening that was quickly closed. In his UNGA address on Wednesday, Moon called for a proclamation to end the Korean War. Hostilities ceased in 1953 with an armistice, but the two countries technically remain at war. “When the parties involved in the Korean War stand together and proclaim an end to the war, I believe we can make irreversible progress in denuclearization and usher in an era of complete peace,” Moon said.

A day later, North Korea rejected Moon’s overture, calling the idea of ending the war “premature.” Back in New York, North Korea’s response surprised no one.


What’s on Today’s Agenda?

More speeches. World leaders scheduled to speak today include: Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, European Council President Charles Michel, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

In Washington, Biden hosts the first in-person meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, with his counterparts from India, Australia, and Japan.


Infographic: A Snapshot of the ‘Post-Pandemic’ World

The pandemic sent shockwaves throughout the global economy and has stretched humanitarian and health systems to a breaking point. Here’s a glimpse at how its effects have shaped the world, from rising debt to surges in global poverty.


The Week Behind

Worried you missed something big in the flurry of diplomacy this week? We’ve got you covered. Here’s a rundown of the top UNGA news:

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned the world is “on the edge of an abyss and moving in the wrong direction,” citing a woeful international response to climate change and the pandemic as well as rising tensions between the United States and China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to halt Beijing’s overseas financing of coal-fired power plants.

Biden announced plans to ease pandemic travel restrictions on European nationals, easing a source of transatlantic tensions. He also pledged to prod Congress to double the U.S. annual contribution to help vulnerable states grapple with the ravages of climate change to $11.4 billion.

French President Emmanuel Macron recalled his ambassadors to the United States and Australia, escalating a transatlantic diplomatic crisis. He then had a call with Biden that appeared to somewhat defuse tensions.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro defied New York City guidelines by addressing world leaders in the U.N. General Assembly hall unvaccinated while his health minister tested positive for COVID-19 after visiting the hall.

The Taliban’s top diplomat, Amir Khan Muttaqi, requested a speaking slot before world leaders at the General Assembly and asked the movement’s spokesperson become an accredited ambassador to the United Nations. Muttaqi is on a U.N. list of suspected terrorists.


NATO Chief Reflects on Afghan War

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a press conference.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a press conference following a virtual meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Feb. 18.Virginia Mayo/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

We caught up with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on the UNGA sidelines this week. The alliance is reeling from the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and a heated feud among three of its members—France, Britain, and the United States—over the so-called AUKUS agreement with Australia.

In a phone interview, Stoltenberg conceded that NATO needed to absorb some tough lessons from the two decade-long war in Afghanistan, even as he asserted the alliance would be able to keep striking terrorist groups afar. “We once again have been reminded of the fact that it is easier to start a war than to end a war,” he said.


More On NGOs Shut Out From Headquarters

The United Nations has addressed complaints by civil society groups that they have been unfairly shut out of the U.N. premises, insisting they have tried to accommodate those concerns by letting them participate virtually in U.N. activities.

But Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch, and Sherine Tadros, Amnesty International’s U.N. representative, said the world body has erected a series of bureaucratic hoops that have defied common sense and kept them on the outside.

A glimpse into the red tape. On Sept. 8, Charbonneau tried to register online to have his organization’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, participate in a Sept. 23 session on the 20th anniversary of the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, receiving confirmation his request was “pending approval.”

But a week later, on Sept. 15, Charbonneau received a second email, explaining that his request had not been processed because he had emailed it to an address used exclusively for civil society groups that have not been accredited with the United Nations. (Human Rights Watch is accredited.) The United Nations recommended the rights group watch the event on a streamed broadcast.

That wasn’t the end of it. On Sept. 17, six days before the event, another Human Rights Watch representative who was on leave, Widad Franco, received an email from the U.N. offering her organization an opportunity to register. She had less than three hours to do it before the offer expired, and she didn’t see the email.

Just a coincidence? The registration kerfuffle comes as the rights organizations and other civil society groups have bristled over ongoing pandemic restrictions, which have allowed diplomats, U.N. officials, and journalists to return to the building—but not them. The bureaucratic muddle has fueled suspicion that the U.N. has sought to prevent the groups from participating in this week’s summit.

The U.N. response. U.N. spokesperson Paul Simon wrote in an email to U.N. Brief that “given the ongoing restrictions for in-person participation at U.N. Headquarters … NGO physical participation at the Durban+20 meeting has been reduced to organizations who would have speaking opportunities. NGOs have therefore been invited to indicate interest to speaking by responding to an online registration process.”

A final decision on who gets to speak is up to the office of the General Assembly president, Simon said.


Odds and Ends

Wrong turn. The skies over New York City got a little loud on Tuesday when U.S. National Guard F-16s were scrambled to intercept a Cessna plane that flew a little too close for comfort to the restricted airspace over U.N. headquarters. Turns out it was just a U.S. Army Cessna on a West Point Military Academy training flight. At least now the Air Force has something new to joke about at the Army’s expense.

Boris Johnson takes aim at Kermit the Frog. In his UNGA address, the British Prime Minister invoked Kermit the Frog about the importance of tackling climate change—unfairly, in our opinion, implying that Kermit is a climate change-denier. “When Kermit the Frog sang, ‘It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green,’ I want you to know that he was wrong,” Johnson said.

The Muppets could not immediately be reached for comment.

Thanks for the heads up. In a meeting with Stoltenberg, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow has no plans to join NATO, as Russian News Agency TASS reported. Don’t worry, Lavrov; no one thought that was on the table.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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