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Posted on on October 24th, 2007
by Pincas Jawetz (

A Presentation of The Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asia Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC. The book, just of the printing press, is volume No. 1 in the Asia-Pacific Leadership Series of SAIS, and was initiated by Professor Kent E. Calder, the Director of the Reischauer Center, who also wrote the Forward to this volume. The book is an abridged, updated, focused, translation into English of memoirs Dr. Han Seung-soo wrote in Japanese while a Senior Fellow at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo, 2004-2006, upon retirement from Korean politics. Dr. Han kept a diary during his events-rich year as UNGA President, and his writings, amazingly, are literally the only record about the UN, to-date, written by a person in high position who was not the UN Secretary-General, and as such is an excellent recording of the functioning mechanism of the UN.

The book has 111 pages plus 36 pages of major speeches of the President of UNGA, 19 pages of the listing of major events during that year, and 15 pages of the index. The book can be obtained from SAIS or the UN bookstore and costs $25.

Dr. Han did not write this because he had anything to defend, this is rather a gallant attempt to explain to the reader how the UN functions, and as it happened his year was a very eventful year, so it makes objectively for interesting reading.

As we shall see, Dr. Han had a very interesting career, and he is still active today. His year as UNGA President may not even have been the high-point of his career, and as said he might yet be slated for future high positions. This just to say that we highly recommend this book as what seems to us a very frank recording of the UN with many of its warts exposed, but also with the high potential of the organization being pointed out.

We went to the book-signing event that was held on October 22, 2007, at the UN Bookstore in the basement of the UN Headquarters, because we knew that Dr. Han Seung-soo was one of the three Special Envoys on Climate Change appointed by the current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. (The other two were Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, the person that made famous the concept of Sustainable Development and is now involved in issues of the environment and climate change, and Dr. Ricardo Lagos of Chile, who now is President of the Club of Madrid and President of the Foundation for Democracy and Development that he created after stepping down from the Presidency of Chile.)

In this position as Special Envoy of the UNSG, Dr. Han is a roving Ambassador to UN Member States in the Secretary-General’s effort to drum up a solid program for this year’s meeting in Bali. We wanted to ask him questions on this topic, and so we did; but we will not write about this in the present posting – this because we intended this posting merely as an introduction of our readers to this book, which we are convinced is a MUST READ for anyone interested in the UN – its promise and also the dangers from irrational expectations.

Korea became independent of Japan in 1945, the nation then fell into the 1950-1954 tragedy of becoming first active battle ground between the two ideologies that survived the World War, and stayed divided since. Dr. Han points out that it was the UN Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK), founded by a UN resolution of November 14, 1947, that supervised the democratic election of Korea’s first National Assembly, and the formal establishment of the Republic of Korea on August 15, 1948. Then it was UN resolutions that provided the basis for 16 nations, including the US, to enter the Korean War and fight on the side of the South Korean forces. It was the UN Korean Reconstruction Agency (UNKRA) that helped Korea after the war; thus Korea fully appreciates the UN and Korea is one of the few countries where the day of the founding of the UN – United Nations Day – October 24 – is a National Holiday.

The Republic of Korea (ROK) became a member of the UN in 1991, so it was only ten years after admission to the UN that the Asian Regional group backed the Korean Foreign Minister, Dr. Han, to become UNGA President.

Dr. Han was born born on December 28, 1936 in Gangwon Province in a remote village in the mountainside. He had to cross two rivers by ferry to go to school in Chuncheon City, but his hopes were to become part of the world that was symbolized by the UN. He reminds us of a popular song, the United Nations Song, that everybody in Korea knew its lyrics.

He got a Master in Public Administration from Seoul National university and a PH.D. in Economics from York University, York, England where he staid on to teach, and moved later to the Department of Applied Economics at Cambridge. His doctoral dissertation, titled “The Growth and the Function of the European Budget,” was awarded by the Commission of European Communities, in 1971, the Prize as the best doctoral thesis on the European economic integration.

He returned to Seoul National University in 1970 and taught until 1988 and in parallel started work as Financial Adviser on secondment of the World Bank, holding also appointments at the Univerity of Tokyo and at Harvard University.

From 1987 to 1988 Dr. Han served as the first Chairman of the Korea Trade Commission and helped with Tax Reform, Bank Reform, and Tariff Reform. He was also adviser to quite an array of public and private-sector financial and trade organizations.

In 1988 he entered political life winning a place in the Korean National Assembly, assuming an array of functions: Minister of Trade and Industry (1988-90), Ambasador to the US (1993-94), Chief of Staff to the President (1994-95), Deputy Prime-Minister and Minister of Finance and Economy (1996-97), Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade (2001-02) . It was from this last position that he was catapulted to the UN.

Among his many achievements in those years are most notable his leadership in bringing Korea into the OECD (1996) and in smoothing out relations with the US in an attempt to deflect the North Korean nuclear ambitions (1994).

After his stint at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the UN, (2001-2002), he staid in politics until 2004, when after 18 years he retired from political life and accepted the invitation by National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo (2004-2006), which resulted in his writing the book we are reviewing now. All these years he was helped along by his wife, Soja, to whom he dedicates this book. She was present at the book signing event and I appreciated her interest in my questions on climate change. It was clear to me that she intended to convey later to her husband the things I mentioned to her.

Further, his book, among the many truths it conveys, is indeed also an eye opener in explaining the function of a President of UNGA. Many times the President is the Foreign Minister of a country that belongs to a rotating roster of the five regional groups that were created informally at the UN. So, it was the turn of the Asian Regional Group to suggest a candidate for the Presidency, and their decision was to put up for the negotiations with the other regional groups the candidacy of Korea. After the agreement between the five groups, the decision is then to approve the candidacy unanimously. Korea then made Dr. Han its Foreign Minister, and he had to provide assurances to the Koreans that he will be able to juggle the two positions simultaneously. Dr. Han does not hide that the matter was something of a personal ambition of his, and that this was the dream position – President of the UNGA – that he always aspired to. A further point was that in 2001 the US – ROK relations started to fray because of overtures South Korea was making to North Korea. Dr. Han thought that with his experience he could help defuse the situation.

The President’s physical presence at the UN is not necessarily required at all times throughout the year, except for the four months September – December. So, this makes it possible for Ministers to hold the job while continuing to hold on to their regular job. In his case, seemingly there were folks back home that thought he will be neglecting his Korean position, so Dr. Han, was pushed, despite the fact that even during those four months he shuttled back and forth, to bring to New York a large group of Koreans he would trust to run things while he is away. The stuff provided by the UN to the office of UNGA President is in any case ridiculously small. It amounts to four staff personnel – to the Office of the President: two secretaries, one security person, and driver and car for the President’s exclusive use.

Among the people Dr. Han brought to New York was Ambassador Ban Ki-moon, a former Vice Foreign Minister, whom he asked to become his Chef de Cabinet. That is how the UN learned to appreciate the man who is now Secretay-General and who did a lot of “stand in” for his boss. Today, after Dr. Han’s retirement from service to ROK, it is his former protege, now UN Secretary-General, who makes offers to Dr. Han to keep him active in UN affairs.

UNGA is one of six major organs that were created by the UN Charter. The others are The UN Security Council, The UN Trusteeship Council, The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the International Court of Justice, and The Secretariat.

The Trusteeship Council has pretty much ended its functions and staid on as a fossil. On the other hand, the UN has not made it clear who is the UN Boss – is it the President of UNGA or the Secretary-General. One could assume that the head of the collective of UN Member States is the head of the UN, but then he is appointed only for one year, and mainly as a part-time job. So, the UN Secretary-General, whose appointment to a full-time job extending for five years, has the obvious advantage. Dr. Han, with full frankness, describes his relations with Mr. Kofi Annan – though friendly they had their frictions, in many cases resulting from frictions between staff members. In some cases, there were clear difficulties because the UN Charter was not more explicit. Whatever the stories, cases of previous UN Secretary-Generals were much worse – such a difficulty resulted in the expulsion of the President of UNGA’s office from the glamorous 38th floor of the Secretariat. To his credit, Dr. Han did not ask to return to that floor, but was happier expanding the new location that is on the 2nd floor.

Having been agreed upon to become President of the General Assembly, the actual ceremony of the handover of the job to him was slated for September 11, 2001 – and this was nixed by the events of that day. In effect the UN was without a head of the GA for a full day, and the ceremony was held on the 12th. Was that event what the terrorists had in mind when they chose to attack on 9/11?

The book presents many interesting details of what went on at the UN those days – of extremely interest to us was what is presented in Chapter 2 – specifically sentences on page 31:

“This was a glimpse of the political machinations that go on within the United Nations. I felt as if everyone was testing the resolve of the new President. Discussions within the UN about whether to schedule the General Debate for 10 to 16, 12 to 18, or 14 to 20 November were spinning out of control. There was growing confusion and discord among the Member States.

I believed that if I, the President, did not exercise strong leadership, the carefully achieved concensus would evaporate…”

All of this came about after an agreed set of dates – 10-16 November – and an after the fact intervention by the Vietnamese Ambassador, who acting as Regional Chairman for Asia for the month of September, brought up an Arab opposition to those dates because of a WTO meeting that was scheduled for Doha, Qatar, for 9 to 14 of November. This in full knowledge that there could not be found alternate dates before the end of 2001 – this in part also because of the Ramadan that is important to Muslims.

The use of the appropriate words “POLITICAL MACHINATIONS” and “Testing the Resolve” – this in relation to Arab Member States of the UN at this time of 9/11 is what shows that Dr. Han is out there to describe the UN as it really is – warts and all. This gets further amplified in Chapter 3 when he writes on The Challenges of International Terrorism, when the Ambassador of Sri Lanka, the October Chairman of the Asia Regional Group, backed by the Ambassador from Sudan, the Chairman for October of the African Regional Group, was set up by the Arab States, to interfere with the discussion on terrorism under the pretext that the only resolution that had a chance to pass was too weak – and it had to be “strengthened” in order to make it really unacceptable. Dr. Ban was also confronted by a direct Arab delegation made up of four Ambassadors of the Arab League – one Syrian, two Lybians, and Ambassador Husein Hassouna of the Arab League itself, who using code language of “national liberation movements” made it clear that Palestinians should not be considered terrorists (see page 48 of the book). Dr. Han did not take the bait and was nobody’s fool. Cudos to him and thanks for putting this material in the book.

Chapter 4 of the book deals with “Reform or Not to Reform the Security Cuncil,” and Chapter 6 deals with “Revitalizing the General Assembly.” – both topics of extreme relevance for an organization that grew from an original number of 45 members in 1945 , to 189 members by 2001.

In 1945, with a Security Council that numbered 11 Member States, it was close to 25% of the membership, in 2001, with a total of 15 members of the UNSC – this was only 8% of the membership. That was all old hat to us, but what the book tells us in very clear words is about the existence at the UN of a “Coffee Club” to which belong some 30 countries including – Pakistan, Egypt, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Korea … who oppose increasing the number of permanent members of the Security Council, and by doing so have blocked by then for 10 years the expansion of the UNSC. This opposition is against the front runners, Germany and Japan who are surpassed only by the US in the financial support they give to the UN – in effect each one of them contributes more then the total of the four remaining present permanent members, subtracting the US. What the Coffee Club does, besides Italy and Spain blocking Germany and Japan, seemingly for historic reasons of having also lost in WWII, but they also block the three front runners among the developing countries, those we like to call IBSA at (India, Brazil, South Africa) – with Spanish Latins objecting Brazil, Pakistan objecting India, and Egypt objecting anyone who is not an Arab. The Arab nations, because they comprise 12% of UN Member States, contend that this gives them the automatic right at a permanent seat at the UNSC. Now – that is a further example in the book of “machinations at the UN.” This is a clearly hopeless situation and the Coffee Club wins.

In 2001, Africa counted for 53 UN Member States, Asia for 50, Latin America and the Caribbean for 33, The “Western Europe and Others” group for 27, and the US, Estonia, Kiribati, Palau and Tuvalu not belonging to any group. The rotation for choosing the UNGA President is between the 5 groups and as a result there have been, including Dr. Ban, by 2001, 13 presidents from Asia. The President is supported by 21 Vice-Presidents, such as one from each one of the five Permanent members with one additional from Eastern Europe and two additional from Western Europe – with further 4 from Asia, 6 from Africa, and 3 from Latin America and the Caribbean. It is these Vice-Presidents that actually know the workings of the UN. Dr. Han is not shy to say that the outsider that was parachuted from his capital into the presidency chair, besides the fact that he is part-time only, in many cases he, or she as it lately happened, might not even know the UN, and has thus to “learn on the job.” Dr. Han arranged for meetings on May 16, 2002, chaired by Ambassador Juan Gabriel Valdez of Chile, and including Ambassadors from France, Singapore, the Czech Republic, and South Africa, to look into how the UNGA can be “revitalized.” Brazil suggested to move the inauguration of a new UNGA President to January 1st – this so the new learning experience of the new President does not start at the busiest time of year at UNGA – the time of the meetings that include the high-level meetings. Another proposal would have started the year several month ahead of the year’s session so there is no need to change the official date of the take-over. The second alternative was agreed upon, and accordingly on July 8, 2002, the next incoming President, who happened to be Deputy Prime Minister Kaban of the Czech Republic, arrived in New York to start his learning experience for his Presidency of UNGA. This change at the UN is clearly an achievement that Dr. Han can be proud off.

At the book release /book signing event at the UN bookstore, Dr. Han was introduced by Mr. Kiyotaka Kiyo Akasaka and before the book signing event ended, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dropped in to congratulate Mr. Ban.

Further events that are memorable from the 2001- 2002 “Han Year” at the UNGA:

9/11, the day without an UNGA President, the opening of the 56th session, the delayed General Debate of November 2001, we mentioned already.

October 1, 2007, Mayor Giuliani speaks at the UN – this is the first time a New York City Mayor spoke at the UN.

October 8, 2007, while visiting with his wife and with Mr. Ban Ki-moon and his wife, the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, a touristic trip that is a must to any economist, he learned about the US attack on Afghanistan.

WTO at the Doha meeting approved the accession of China on November 11, 2001, and of Taiwan on November 12. Proof that China can be reasonable when it fits its interests.

December 10, 2001, the Nobel Prize for Peace is awarded in Oslo, in equal parts, to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and to the UN organization as a whole. Dr. Han represents the UN at the ceremonies but agrees that Mr. Annan be the only speaker-recipient at the event. The November-December bimonthly publication of the World Economic Forum – “Economic Link” – publishes their yearly “Dream Cabinet” and mentions Dr. Han, together with Secretary of State Colin Powell, as Foreign Ministers in the Dream Cabinet of the year.

January 29, 2002, President Bush makes the “axis of evil” speech that includes North Korea, Iran, Iraq and February 1 suggests talks with North Korea if the latter reduces its conventional weapons deployed around the demilitarized zone. Dr. Hahn is in the middle of things. He also re-engages Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri.

January 31, 2002, The World Economic Forum of Davos, Switzerland, in solidarity with New York City, starts its yearly meeting in New York rather then Davos. February 1st there is a symposium on “Constructing Solidarity for a Stable World” at Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Dr. Hahn is on the panel together with US Secretary of State Colin Powell, the Secretary-General of NATO, the EU High Representative for the common foreign and security policy, and the Foreign Ministers of Australia, France, and Turkey. (At we remember the event as we were there) Dr. Han talked about the UN activities following the September 11 attacks including the UNGA debate in which 167 countries spoke, the speech by Mayor Giuliani, the UNSC resolution “authorizing intervention in Afghanistan to punish the Taliban regime, which was aiding and refusing to turn over al-Qaeda terrorists,” and the general UN aggressive response to terrorism – referring also to the Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded the UN. He obviously had to pass over the fact that the UNGA debate on “Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism” had to end with a “Presidential Statement” because of the objections put up by the Arab States.

March 21, 2002 the summit-level meeting Financing for Development at Monterrey, Mexico.

April 2002 Dr. Han makes his only official tour of Africa – Ghana, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Senegal. He saw a war ravaged Sierra Leone, and was present in Dakar, Senegal, at the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) meeting with the leaders of 53 African States present. He saw the worst and what should become the best – but was told that the African’s were disappointed that UNSG Kofi Annan did not attend the NEPAD meeting. President Obasanjo of Nigeria wanted to know why does Africa attract so little investments, despite a high rate of return? Dr. Han was not politically affraid to comment on this question.

May 19-20, 2002 – The Independence Ceremonies of East Timor.

May 31, 2002 – The World Cup of soccer is co-hosted by Japan and the ROC. It is a first for cooperation and for Asia.

July 1, 2002 – The Rome statute of the International Criminal Court to deal with genocide and war crimes takes effect.

August 26, 2007 – the start of the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development (Environment and Development Summit) – that is 10 years since the 1992 UNCED in Rio de Janeiro.


two photos taken by Pincas Jawetz at the book-signing event, at the bookstore in the UN basement – October 2007.

The UnderSecretary-General for Information and Communication, Mr. Akasaka, announcing the previously unannounced drop-in of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moom at the book-signing event with Dr. Han Seung-soo.

Looking at the book is UN Spokesperson, Michelle Montas, from Haiti, and watching is the Korean member of the Spokesperson’s office.

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