UN Secretary General, António Guterres held his first press conference of the New Year on January 18, 2019 in the press briefing room at UN Headquarters in New York City.
The press conference covered a number of issues. In his introductory remarks, Secretary General Guterres described how in the 1990s he had an unrealistic expectation that the problems of the world would be solved by “globalization and the new technology”(1). But this was “a naïve sense.” Now he sees that the result of the last 20 years of globalization was a disappointment especially for those “left behind”. This reality needs attention and action.
The trouble with Secretary General Gutterres’ emphasis, however, is that it stressed the negative. Events like the Candlelight Revolution in South Korea in 2016-2017, the inter-Korean summits in 2018 between South Korea and North Korea, and the June 12, 2018 Summit between the U.S. and the DPRK, are significant events of our times. These are hopeful events which provide a basis for the coming year to be one where long standing problems and conflicts that for many years the UN has not succeeded in solving, are within reach of some resolution.
While what Guterres described is one possible phenomena of our current times, it would be more all sided to include some description of more positive developments like those that occurred on the Korean Peninsula. This would have provided a way of including some review of the role the UN played in making these possible, including for example the UN Olympic Truce (2) during the winter games at Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018.
A few questions raised by journalists during the press conference also called the Secretary General’s attention to the situation on the Korean Peninsula. One question was about the current sanctions and whether some relief from them was possible to help encourage some steps toward denuclearization by North Korea.(3)
The journalist also pointed to the fact that humanitarian aid had been cut by the sanctions. The journalist asked the Secretary General for his view of Japan’s statement that it was too early in the dialogue process to grant humanitarian exemptions to North Korea.
The Secretary General responded explaining that there is a clear distinction between humanitarian aid and other areas of negotiations in a conflict. That humanitarian aid should be provided whenever it is possible and it must be exempt from political considerations.(4)
But then the Secretary General Gutteres called for a roadmap for the activities in resolving the conflict and contradicting himself, said the two aspects of the resolution should be linked as part of the roadmap. (5)
Another question on the conflict was whether the Secretary General would consider sending an envoy to North Korea as he did in 2017 when he sent Jeffery Feltman to persuade North Korea to give up their nuclear weapons. Or would the Secretary General consider making a trip himself?(6)
His response was that since the US and the DPRK were both willing to negotiate, it was to encourage that to happen not to have any other initiatives just to get into news articles. Such initiatives are not needed. And he again called for a roadmap to help establish a sense of predictability about the process of the negotiations. (7)
But Jeffrey Feltman’s trip showed that the UN can contribute to peace efforts while the do nothing mode during some periods of UN activity just contributed to let the peace efforts deteriorate.
Lately, however, when I have gone to programs outside of the UN where there were efforts to analyze what is needed to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula, I have seen members of the UN staff or officials covering the programs. It seems there is an effort by the UN Secretariat to understand what is happening and hopefully to be able to contribute constructively. Perhaps if the Secretary General held more frequent press conferences at UN headquarters as was the situation in the past, that could help to clarify what contributions the Secretariat could help make to the efforts toward peace on the Korean Peninsula.
When I first came to the UN 12 years ago in October 2006, it was common practice for the Secretary General to hold monthly press conferences in the press briefing room. Over the years, however, the practice has changed. Lately, press conferences with the Secretary General are not only less frequent, but they have also diminished in length and breadth. The New Year’s press conference with the Secretary General in the press briefing room where a number of journalists were called on to ask their questions was indeed a relatively unusual occasion. Will the Secretary General have more like this? Or will he slip back to his more common practice of coming to the podium of the stakeout area of the Security Council where he introduces a subject and then takes questions from a few journalists.
To start off the New Year with a substantial press event as this, was a welcomed event and one which hopefully signals a desire on the part of the Secretary General for an improved interaction between the Secretary General and the UN press corps.
1) Full transcript Press Conference
> Direct link:https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/press-encounter/2019-01-18/secretary-generals-press-conference
The Secretary General said: “When I served in government in Portugal in the 1990s, there was a sense – a naïve sense as it turned out – that globalization and technological progress would solve all our problems in the world and the benefits would ultimately reach all.”
3)Question: “Thank you, Secretary General. I’m Motokura Kazushige, Japan. My question is about DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). So, what will happen next will have much to do with the ongoing meeting between DPRK, US high ranking officials today in Washington. But I’d like to ask you, if… do you think it’s a good time to start… from the point of view of the United Nations, it’s good time to start discussing easing sanctions of Security Council against DPRK to push this process of denuclearization forward?
And, also, what would be your opinion about restarting humanitarian aid for DPRK? So, last years, there have been lot of effort to restart the humanitarian… addressing humanitarian necessity in DPRK, but, for example, Japan is strongly… well, Japan is still saying that it’s too early to apply humanitarian exemption for DPRK. What would be your opinion? Thank you.”
(4)Answer: Secretary-General: “I like to separate things. Humanitarian aid is based on humanitarian principles, and the basic humanitarian principle is that humanitarian aid doesn’t follow political objectives. So, in our opinion, we should never refuse humanitarian aid to any country in the world in any circumstance for the people of that country, if the humanitarian aid can be distributed to the people of that country. This is clear for us in all circumstances. So, it’s not a matter applied to each country in each moment according to political observations.”
(5)Secretary General: “Having said so, we believe it’s high time to make sure that the negotiations between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea start again seriously and that a roadmap is clearly defined for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. So, we wouldn’t advocate for any anticipation of other measures before a clear negotiation is put in place, aiming at the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula with a roadmap, and then, of course, the two things will be inevitably interlinked.”
(6) Question: “Mr. Secretary General, I wanted to get back to North Korea. Many important discussions (are) going on in Washington today. Basically, do you think that in 2019, it will be possible to persuade North Korea to give up their weapons programs? You’ve come up with a suggestion a while ago to send an envoy to Pyongyang to try to open the door. Is this something that you’d be willing to do again, or would you, yourself, be willing to travel to Pyongyang to advance that dossier?”
(7) Secretary-General: “I am not a supporter of having initiatives just to be in the newspapers. I think initiatives need to be taken when they are useful. At the present moment, I don’t think that it makes sense to try to push both the DPRK and the United States for a negotiation, because I believe both sides are willing to do so. And I believe that the DPRK has already accepted that the objective of the negotiation, a central objective of the negotiation would be the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. So, we encourage both countries to move on with the negotiations. I think we need a clear roadmap, as I said, to clarify things and to allow to know exactly what the next steps will be and to have predictability in the way negotiations take place. But I don’t think the UN at the present moment can have much added value. I think it’s important for the two parties to come together in an effective way…”