Neutral unified Korea
Recently I attended an interesting conference in Seoul concerning the subject of Korean unification through permanent neutrality sponsored by a research group called the Council for a Unified Neutral Korea headed by Dr. Kang Jong-il. Like many other organizations that study unification issues, this group believes the fundamental source of the North Korean problem is the division of the Korean Peninsula.
International neutrality has historically been an attractive concept to Korea in protecting its independence since the closing years of the 19th century. Since the end of World War II, power relationships have drastically changed in the region, but the geopolitical setting of the peninsula remains the same, in which the interests of Korea’s neighboring powers ― China, Russia, Japan and the United States ― intersect.
Simply defined, a neutral sovereign state is obliged by international law to be neutral in future wars between belligerents. However, we have seen varying degrees of difference among the declared neutral states in fulfilling their neutrality obligations according to domestic laws and international treaties.
A unification approach by way of permanent neutrality presupposes that Korea’s neighboring powers implicitly but practically oppose a unified Korea for fear that it might tip the balance of power in favor of their adversary or competitor. In short, the efficacy of neutrality is limited to neutralization of the objections by the surrounding powers.
Removal of the big powers’ objection alone would not facilitate a process of unification that has to be worked out between the North and the South. There is no question that China would oppose unification through initiatives and dominance by the South, albeit an increasing number of people in Seoul and Washington believe that would be the only viable fashion of unification.
The United States didn’t have a policy on Korean unification until the 1990s, when it started stating that it supports the efforts of the Korean people to terminate the division of their country, for which it is at least partially responsible. China also fought in Korea for strategic interests and says it supports peaceful Korean unification.
However, there are no signs that either the United States or China has ever seriously considered any policy to support peaceful unification of Korea. A unified Korea maintaining an alliance with the United States would not be acceptable to China or Russia. There is little incentive for Japan to support the realization of a unified Korea, for concerns that it might threaten or invade Japan at some point in a reaction to history.
On the other hand, there is ample reason for the surrounding states to prefer the status quo on the peninsula. From a U.S. perspective, the prospect of a growing China and the need to manage its increasing influence in the region supports a strengthened alliance with the South based on the status quo of the division and military confrontation. This also serves China’s interest in maintaining stability in a divided Korea.
Peaceful unification remains an ultimate political goal for both the North and the South, at least in rhetoric, although there has recently been a tendency of declining interest. At times, they appear serious about unification; at other times, they do not.
Even with a neutrality approach, unification efforts should begin with the Korean authorities and people on both sides. Over the past 66 years of division, so much was discussed and written about unification, producing competing official and unofficial unification formulas, including Seoul’s three-stage confederation formula and Pyongyang’s “democratic confederation of Koryo,’’ which actually was a misnomer for a federation.
In June 2000, the two sides “acknowledged that there is a common element in the South’s proposal for a confederation and the North’s proposal for a loose form of federation.” This was the first inter-Korean agreement on the formula for unification, but there was no agreement on the pace of the unification process or the form of government for the final state of integration.
Yet, it is unknowable when and how Korean unification may come about. One thing most people agree on is that unification should not be pursued by means of force. The desirability and justification for a united Korea are still strongly supported by the people, as they believe it would bring economic and other benefits from reallocation of resources from tension reduction and increased competitiveness. These things would far outweigh the overblown cost of unification.
There is still a division of views between the possibility of a North Korean collapse that would allow unification through absorption by the South and the pragmatic choice of a gradual approach to unification by change and opening in the North. The gradual approach rejects the collapse theory that has persisted for the past 20 years but has not happened.
The two sides of Korea have produced several important agreements including the North-South Joint Communique of July 4, 1973, the North South Basic Agreement of 1991, the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in February 1992, and the North-South Joint Declaration of June 15, 2000. However, none of these agreements were carried out.
Maybe it is time to re-evaluate the entire spectrum of the unification issue from scratch and recreate a new path to peaceful unification. By conventional wisdom, we should go back to accept mutual accommodation for a peaceful existence, renunciation of war, denuclearization, building trust through inter-Korean cooperation, and establishing a peace regime, as well as continue on a process of unification based on a reconfirmed or newly agreed formula.
When the two Koreas genuinely resume talks of peace and peaceful unification, there will be less risk of military provocation and more chance of lessening tensions. What’s your take?
The writer is a visiting research professor at Korea University and a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies. He is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.