South Korea (ROK)’s display of leadership as a global pivotal state in pursuing justice and accountability for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the attendant war crimes at the UN General Assembly, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court (ICC)

Dear President Yoon Suk-yeol,

We urge your government to contribute to the realization of justice and accountability for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the accompanying atrocities at the UN General Assembly, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court (ICC) in a manner befitting a global pivotal state. It is of particular importance that the crime of aggression must be punished and to this end South Korea can join in the process of establishing a special tribunal.

While we welcome your government’s espousal of “value diplomacy”, it is important to turn words into concrete actions. With respect to North Korea (DPRK), your government’s decision to co-sponsor the annual North Korean human rights resolution (A/C.3/77/L.32) sponsored by the European Union (EU), for the first time in four years as well as participation in the joint statement of December 9, 2022 by 31 countries urging the Security Council to support an open briefing in 2023[1] despite negative reactions from Pyongyang is undoubtedly a positive change as it signals South Korea’s commitment to the minimum standard of consistency in the implementation of its obligation to respect, protect and fulfil human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Also welcome is the expression of “grave concern over the human rights situation in the DPRK” in the joint summit statement with the US of May 21, 2022[2] as well as the reaffirmation of a “shared commitment to the immediate resolution of the abductions issue” and the US and Japanese expression of “support for the immediate release of the ROK citizens detained in the DPRK” in the Phnom Penh Statement on Trilateral Partnership of November 13, 2022.[3] Although the omission of any reference to the unreturned South Korean prisoners of war (POWs), mainly from the Korean War but also the Vietnam War and post-1953 inter-Korean land and naval clashes, is disappointing, this shortcoming will surely be remedied in future statements.

However, we express more serious concern about your government’s lack of consistency in championing human rights elsewhere, especially with respect to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its aftermath. On November 16, 2022, South Korea abstained in the vote on the resolution on the situation of human rights in the temporarily occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Ukraine (A/C.3/77/L.35) only hours after the adoption of the North Korean human rights resolution at the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee.

A record 50 countries co-sponsored the annual occupied Crimea human rights resolution sponsored by Ukraine, but your government chose to follow in the footsteps of your predecessors that either was not present for the vote (2016) or abstained (2017-2021). Combined with the failure to join the statement of 50 countries at the Third Committee on October 31, 2022[4] condemning China’s arbitrary and discriminatory detention of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang that, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity”[5], the abstention dashed the expectations raised by your government’s support for a debate on the Xinjiang situation and a UN Special Rapporteur on Russian human rights, a first for a permanent member state of the UN Security Council, at the UN Human Rights Council on October 8, 2022.

We note that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and other international human-rights NGOs jointly welcomed the adoption of the occupied Crimea resolution, along with the DPRK resolution, in the Third Committee.[6] It is strange for your officials to question the affirmation of Russia’s seizure of Crimea and other territories of Ukraine by force as “illegal and a violation of international law” and demands upon Russia to “unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders” as “political” and stranger yet that they find a possible reference to the nuclear issue “controversial” in the Iran human rights resolution even as the North Korean human rights resolution that your government co-sponsored minces no words in “condemning the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for diverting its resources into pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles over the welfare of its people” as it has done consistently since 2017.[7]

We ask that your government will reconsider its position when the Crimea human rights resolution is again put to a vote at the plenary session of the General Assembly on December 15, 2022, consistent with the aspiration of becoming a global pivotal state.

Your government has also been hesitant about intervening in the case brough by Ukraine against Russia alleging the latter’s violation of the Genocide Convention before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as 31 countries, including Latvia, New Zealand, Germany, the United States, Sweden, France, Ireland, Norway, Canada and the Netherlands, have done thus far despite being a state party to the Genocide Convention.[8] We note that South Korea acceded to the Genocide Convention on October 14, 1950 at the personal suggestion of Raphael Lemkin, who authored and lobbied for its adoption after the extermination of his Jewish family in Europe by the Nazis, to Chang Myon, then-South Korea’s first ambassador to the United States and later prime minister, in the face of North Korea’s massacres of Christians and other religionists at the start of the Korean War. It would be consistent with this history for your country to take a principled stance on the question of genocide at the ICJ.

South Korea has also been conspicuously absent in the international efforts to bring those responsible for Russia’s aggression and the attendant war crimes to justice at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other forums. On March 2, 2022, South Korea did not take part in the joint referral by 38 countries of the situation in Ukraine to the ICC that enabled the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) to proceed straight to an investigation, without the need for judicial approval.[9] Even after your inauguration, South Korea did not join the Political Declaration of the Ministerial Ukraine Accountability Conference on July 14, 2022, hosted by the Netherlands, together with the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) and the European Commission, signed by 45 nations pledging to coordinate evidence of war crimes in Ukraine.[10] South Korea’s inaction is also in contrast with Japan which has seconded additional prosecutors to the ICC to assist in the investigation of war crimes in Ukraine. South Korea can and should do more for its consistent display of leadership as a global pivotal state in pursuing justice and accountability.

Fortunately, South Korea can play a constructive role in the creation and operation of a special tribunal to hold those responsible for the crimes of aggression against Ukraine to account. As early as May 19, 2022, the European Parliament expressed support for “the setting up of a special international tribunal for the punishment of the crime of aggression committed against Ukraine by the political leaders and military commanders of Russia and its allies” since the ICC does not have jurisdiction over the crime of aggression in this situation.[11] On November 30, 2022, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen formally proposed setting up of “a specialised court, backed by the United Nations, to investigate and prosecute Russia’s crime of aggression”.[12] The European Commission envisioned either “a special independent international tribunal based on a multilateral treaty” or “a specialised court integrated in a national justice system with international judges–a hybrid court” while adding that “for both options, strong backing of the United Nations would be essential”.[13] As the UN General Assembly is expected to vote on the EU proposal in February 2023, South Korea can express its support for a special tribunal by voting in favor and subsequently sending its judges, prosecutors and investigators to the tribunal. This would be consistent with our understanding that South Korea is deeply committed to multilateralism and respect for international law and opposes the annexation of any country or territory, as it is a clear violation of international law.

We recall that the Kremlin has perpetrated mass atrocities in Ukraine in the past with impunity. On November 30, 2022, the German Bundestag joined other countries in adopting a resolution recognizing the mass famine that killed millions of Ukrainians under Stalin’s totalitarian, paranoid rule in the 1930s as genocide.[14] Without justice and accountability, history will continue to repeat itself.

There are difficult political considerations to be made in the realm of diplomacy and becoming a global pivotal state requires making tough choices that may conflict with the short-term national interests. For instance, South Korea will have to decide how to vote as a member of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on the resolution to remove Iran from the UN Commission on Status of Women (CSW) on December 14, 2022. We note that South Korea has already voted in favor of the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution S-35/1 on the deteriorating situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, especially with respect to women and children, on November 24, 2022.

In late April 2022, you stated in an interview as the president-elect that Rather than limiting [South Korea’s] response to North Korea’s human rights violations, when there is a collective abuse of human rights in the world and when abuses are done by a government authority or political force, then the international community [including South Korea] must cooperate and respond so that international order based on norms can be maintained”.[15] We cannot agree more and ask South Korea as a global pivotal state to cooperate with the international community at the UN General Assembly, the ICJ and the ICC to support the norm-based international order by pursuing justice and accountability for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the ensuing war crimes in a manner consistent with your own words.

Thank you.


Signature organizations (as of December 13, 2022)

Ukrainian organizations

Civil Network OPORA

Ghosts of Kyiv

Independent Anti-Corruption Commission (NAKO)

International Centre for Ukrainian Victory (ICUV)

National Interest Advocacy Network (ANTS)

International and South Korean organizations

Asia Democracy Network (ADN)

Human Asia / South Korea

People for Successful Corean Reunification (PSCORE) / South Korea

Save North Korea / South Korea

Stepping Stone / UK

Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG) / South Korea

[2] United States-Republic of Korea Leaders’ Joint Statement (MAY 21, 2022), <>

[3] Phnom Penh Statement on US – Japan – Republic of Korea Trilateral Partnership for the Indo-Pacific (NOVEMBER 13, 2022), <>

[4] Joint Statement on Behalf of 50 countries in the UN General Assembly Third Committee on the Human Rights Situation in Xinjiang, China (October 31, 2022), <>

[5] OHCHR Assessment of human rights concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China (31 August 2022), <>

[6] Joint civil society statement on the outcomes of UNGA 77 Third Committee (21 November 2022), <>

[7] Oh Su-Jin, “Government says it joined the North Korean human rights resolution but abstained in the Crimea resolution because of “many political contents” [정부, 北인권결의 동참·크림결의안은 기권…"정치적 내용 많아"]” (Yonhap News (November 17, 2022) [in Korean], <>

[10] Political Declaration of the Ministerial Ukraine Accountability Conference (July 14, 2022),


[15] South Korea's President-Elect Envisions 'Comprehensive Alliance' With US, VOA (2022.5.7),