On May 27th 1991, the DPRK’s Foreign Ministry announced its intention to join the United Nations. However as we pushed ahead with the idea, a problem surfaced. If the DPRK applies for membership to the UN, it creates a contradiction. From the very outset, the dual membership of both Koreas would be seen as promoting the permanent division of the Korean Peninsula. Yet, it was getting harder and harder to wait for the Republic of Korea to submit its application. Moreover if the Republic of Korea applied first and was accepted, there was still a chance the United States could veto the DPRK admission and that would be disastrous.
Therefore, we discussed the order of membership applications with both China and the Soviet Union. They both confirmed that the United States still supported the dual-application of both Koreas to the UN but could provide nothing in the way of guarantees. Eventually, the DPRK secured an agreement that both China and the Soviet Union would only approve South Korea’s application providing the North had already been accepted and the US didn’t oppose it.
Kim Jung-il reported to Kim Il-sung that it would be the DPRK who would submit their application first. At first, Kim Il-sung was furious and worried that it would result in just the South being admitted. However, with a sigh, he eventually concurred and gave his assent. Thus in July that year, the DPRK made a surprise move and submitted its application for membership to the United Nations ahead of the ROK. This came as quite a surprise to both South Korea and the United States. The issue of the DPRK and ROK’s admission was passed by the Security Council in August and unanimously accepted at the United Nations General Assembly in September.
South Korea and the international community cheered loudly at this announcement. However for us, it was most certainly not something to be pleased about. It was reported to the citizens of North Korea in a brief news report. Kim Il-sung’s lifelong policy of being steadfastly opposed to the two Koreas joining the UN had been taken away in a flash. Moreover, Kim Il-sung bore the responsibility of the permanent division of the Korean Peninsula because it was the DPRK that had submitted their application first.
Yet my doubts remained. Why was it that South Korea, which had always aggressively promoted the simultaneous enrollment of both Koreas to the UN, filed its application after us? Was it about assigning responsibility for the permanent division of the two countries? I really have no idea.
At the time, the DPRK Foreign Ministry was greatly worried that it would be the ROK who would submit their application first and then use the United States’ veto power to restrict ours. We knew of course that the Roh Tae-woo government would support our application because of their widely-stated ‘Nordpolitik’ approach. However, we remained unsure about the United States’ position as they had begun raising concerns about the nuclear threat of our country. Kim Jong-il had fought for an agreement with China and the Soviet Union that when the two Koreas were accepted into the United Nations, the DPRK would receive diplomatic relations with the United States. This was the second principle of Kim Il-sung’s that would be broken as he never wanted this to happen either. This negotiated approval would see China and the Soviet Union recognizing the Republic of Korea and the United States and Japan recognizing the DPRK.
Until that time, all textbooks in North Korea were opposed to joint membership in the UN and the fabrication of a “Two Koreas” principle. Therefore it required great skill and manipulation to cope with this latest change.
For example, in the case of East and West Germany, those two countries signed a basic treaty and joined the United Nations under the guise of being part of a special relationship rather than two separate states. However, unlike Germany, North and South Korea joined the United Nations not without a particular treaty or convention in place, but instead only the Korean Armistice. It also took a great deal of persuasion of the North Korean citizens that the two Koreas were not, in fact, two countries. This issue was ultimately settled in December 1991 when the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation was signed. Also known as “The Basic Agreement”, it defines inter-Korean relations as “recognizing that their relations, not being a relationship between states, constitute a special interim relationship stemming from the process towards reunification.”
Although this was akin to closing the stable door after the horse had bolted, it did provide an opportunity for the DPRK to better rationalize the concurrent admission of the two Koreas to the United Nations.
The remaining problem was how to use China and the Soviet Union’s support to instigate diplomatic relations with the United States and Japan. Only then would the cross-agreement that Kim Jong-il had made vis-à-vis the North’s and South’s relations with other countries come into play. However, the Soviet Union had already established diplomatic relations with South Korea and was responding rather uninterestedly. China responded that it was doing its best to work on the cross approval of South Korea and North Korea by the respective countries but neither the United States nor Japan were interested in pursuing it further.
The Soviet Union, which was ultimately dismantled in the same month that the two Koreas signed the Basic Agreement, was no longer there to support the DPRK. Moreover, China then established diplomatic relations with the Republic of Korea without first receiving any signal as to whether the United States would do the same regards the DPRK. In particular, China did not seem willing to mediate any diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea and instead seemed to be siding with America. Furthermore, they began to rub salt in the wounds by insisting that they diplomatic relations with the United States would only be possible once the nuclear issue was resolved.