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Could permanent neutrality be the answer for Korea?

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Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, shakes hands with South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon after signing a document during an opening ceremony of the joint liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea, 14 September 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Yonhap).

In Brief

Amid the growing schism between China and the United States, the extent to which South Korea can remain autonomous is unclear. There is an increasing need for South Korean policymakers to develop a new strategy that can enhance Seoul’s geopolitical standing. Permanent neutrality — that is, a declaration, backed by an international treaty, by both Koreas of neutrality in any future great-power conflict — would be a game changer that adequately reflects the larger international structural forces that are transforming East Asia’s security architecture.


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A permanently neutralised Korean Peninsula would reassure China that this gateway to the heart of continental Eurasia would become less affected by Washington’s geopolitical designs. From the United States’ standpoint, this Sun Tzu-esque balancing mechanism of subduing the enemy without fighting could contain China’s hegemonic ambition by exploiting a neutral Korea’s geography, since the Peninsula would provide a natural buffer between continental and maritime Asia. Moreover, Korean neutrality could serve as a test case for future cooperation between these two rivals in other conflict zones.

Russia and Japan also stand to gain from neutrality. As Russia seeks to become a ‘third partner’ in the Asia Pacific, Seoul’s new geopolitical status would align with Russia’s vision for Northeast Asian integration. It would also deny the United States the ability to unilaterally dictate Korea’s geo-economic strategy. Japan has traditionally viewed the Korean Peninsula as a buffer against hostile continental powers, but a neutralised Korea would also assist Japan’s push for a ‘Free and Open’ Indo-Pacific and deny Beijing the opportunity to exploit Korea as a proxy for ready access to the Pacific.

The two Koreas would benefit greatly from neutrality. Both North and South Korea are painfully aware of their comparative economic, military and technological inferiorities vis-a-vis the aforementioned four major powers. Neutrality is an ideal strategy to realise the previously elusive flexible autonomy for Pyongyang and Seoul as they explore potential unification, which may initially be achieved through gradual economic and political integration.

As a first step towards permanent neutrality, the United States and other regional powers would have to cooperate in constructing a peace system on the Korean Peninsula, as enduring peace and stability are requisites for neutralisation. This would entail routine high-level political and military talks between the two Koreas to continue the momentum of dialogue and implement confidence- and security-building measures like the prior notification of respective troop movements and demining of the Demilitarized Zone.

The declaration of the end of the Korean War by the two Koreas, China and the United States would also have to be pursued for peace building on the Korean Peninsula. In return, North Korea would have to match its rhetoric on denuclearisation by agreeing to the resumption of international inspections of its nuclear sites.

Next, in exchange for the sealing of its nuclear weapons and disarmament of its intercontinental ballistic missiles, North Korea could sign a peace treaty with China, South Korea and the United States. This would prepare the groundwork for a new security structure in Northeast Asia.

To make this concept (which is already being floated by South Korea) credible, the two Koreas, China and the United States would have to work with Japan and Russia to launch a Northeast Asian security forum. This annual forum would cover security issues that are related to Korean neutrality, such as arms control and periodic multilateral talks in Northeast Asia. It would also allow participants to explore new cooperation mechanisms — a time-consuming but much-needed process to prevent accidental conflicts in the region.

This period would also witness a phase-in of Pyongyang’s denuclearisation — verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s ongoing monitoring and accompanied by the gradual relaxation of international sanctions on North Korea. Joint academic, industry and infrastructure (especially railway) projects, military negotiations and parliamentary-level dialogues would have to be pursued patiently to promote peaceful co-existence between the two Koreas.

In time, the two Koreas may be able to establish a negotiating framework for neutralised unification. Depending on the pace of denuclearisation, the gradual normalisation of relations between North Korea and the United States may also be in the cards, which would provide a much-craved sense of legitimacy for Pyongyang.

Conventional arms control on the Korean Peninsula would have to be implemented to reduce security tensions. This agreement would require a precise timeline and scale that are devised and verified by a joint supervisory body composed of US, North Korean and South Korean military officials. Beijing and Washington would separately prepare themselves for protracted talks on the removal of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system from South Korea, in return for China using its diplomatic weight to accelerate Pyongyang’s denuclearisation.

Following in the footsteps of the Congress of Vienna — which formalised Switzerland’s neutrality — the final step would see a special session that hammers out a binding treaty on Korea’s permanent neutrality, with China, Japan, Russia and the United States acting as its guarantors. Washington would also agree to end its military presence in South Korea (a strategy that is already gaining traction in policy circles) and terminate the US–South Korean alliance after Korean unification. These steps would pave the way for a non-aligned and neutral Korea.

Sangpil Jin is a historian and a geopolitical analyst. He holds a PhD in Korean Studies from the University of London and is currently working on a book manuscript about the neutrality of Korea during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He currently resides in Hong Kong.

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