Intervention of Mrs. Mélanie Komagata in the Webinar on 25 June 2022

I’m honored to be part of this webinar and to speak among very experienced panelists. Despite only being a student, I hope to contribute to the discussion by looking at History and that together, we can draw lessons from the past regarding trust-building and the resolution of the Korean question.

What created distrust and disunity among the Korean people? We often think of the Korean War, which of course, left a deep scar and an abyss between the Korean people. However, I think the division of Korea takes roots much further back and is much more complex:

If we look at the history of Korea, the peninsula had been a united territory for centuries, under the Koryo and Choson kingdoms, with a common language and culture. Nonetheless, the Korean people have also been divided in some respects:

Especially at the end of the 19th century, in the age of imperialism, foreign powers began to be interested in the Korean peninsula, notably due to its strategic geopolitical location in Northeast Asia; a characteristic that is unchanged today. And despite being a vassal of China, under the then-existing Chinese-centered tributary system, Korea concluded unequal treaties with external powers, such as Japan in 1876, which pressured Korea to open up to the world. Korea also entered relations with the US, Russia, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and France.

Amid this rivalry of great empires trying to spread their sphere of influence in Northeast Asia, Korea was then in a dangerous situation, at risk of losing its territorial integrity like a “shrimp among whales”.

As a consequence of this major powers’ rivalry over Korea:

  • world powers feared that the peninsula may be taken over by another nation, which is what today’s major powers are still frightened about. And therefore, to use Korea as a buffer zone and to prevent any empire from taking over the peninsula, on multiple occasions between the end of the 19th century until the annexation of Korea by Japan, major powers attempted the neutralization of the Korean Peninsula based on existing models such as Switzerland and Belgium.
  • Moreover, on the one hand, within the government and the population, people were siding with certain powers. For instance, Queen Min, the wife of King Kojong, was pro-Russian (which also led to her assassination by Japan). Other factions in the government, supported China, other US, Japan, etc. And this disunity within the government did not help the already existing national weakness. Indeed, pro-Japanese Koreans also, later, cooperated with the Japanese government and supported its intrusion and annexation of Korea. à this internal disunity is still present today.
  • On the other hand, a part of the population and government officials were unhappy with the increasing intrusion of foreign powers in their country, and many rebellions and uprisings took place against these. Moreover, those who wanted to protect Korea’s territorial integrity and national independence also attempted its neutralization.

In this manner, already before the colonization and division, the Korean people were somewhat divided due to foreign powers’ influence, and the Korean question was being discussed among great powers, as how to bring about stability in Northeast Asia.

  • Neutralization could have been a solution to the ongoing “conquest” of interests, as well as could have allowed Korea to remain independent and united.

However, as the major powers only focused on their national interests rather than that of the Korean people, and as the Korean government and people were disunited and did not trust one another, all the numerous attempts of neutralization failed, and eventually, with the victory of Japan in the Sino-Japanese and the Russo-Japanese Wars, Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910. Moreover, soon after Korea’s independence in 1945, Korea was once again under major power’s influence: that of the USSR and the US, which led to its division, and the Korean War.

So, what lessons can we draw from the past?

  • The main one is that we cannot solve the Korean issue if we only focus on the peninsula itself. The Korean question is part of a bigger picture: Northeast Asia and the Major Powers’ rivalry.
  • Moreover, as long as the Korean people, and today the two Koreas, continue to side with major powers and see the problem in the other camp, unification and true independence will be impossible.
  • the question therefore is, can we solve this competition of power as well as the internal Korean disunity, through a new neutralization attempt today? Perhaps, neutrality is what could help rebuild trust and peace on the peninsula and solve current issues of division, unresolved war, and nuclear ambitions.

Based on many research articles on the neutralization of Korea:

It could be a first step to approaching reunification, through rapprochement between not only the two Koreas but also the two ideological world camps: neutrality will help solve the internal competition, lessen the need for nuclear capacity, and bring stability in Northeast Asia, especially during this time of rising tensions between China and the US and era of a new global cold war.

Moreover, it could be beneficial for all actors: the two camps would no longer fear the other side from taking over, could trust each other, and stability could come about in the region with a neutral peninsula playing the role of a buffer zone.

Furthermore, permanent neutrality of the peninsula could be established first based on a confederation model, as was proposed by Kim Il Sung and then Kim Dae-Jung. Kim Il Sung spoke in 1997 of a “Democratic Federal Republic of Koryo”, which would be “a neutral country which does not participate in any political, military alliance or bloc”.

Former SK president, Kim Daejung thought of a confederation with each government retaining its system, or a federation with a single government, which administers foreign relations and defense, but with regional autonomous governments to handle regional internal affairs

However, the neutralization doesn’t come without risks or conditions:

  • Risks: could be that certain actors do not respect the international agreement or convention for the neutrality of Korea, for example by launching a surprise attack and taking over the whole peninsula. Indeed, SK fears that if the US withdraws its troops, NK and China could see this as an opportunity to take over. However, this could be solved by having international peacekeeping troops for example.
  • Furthermore, there are numerous conditions for neutralization. One particular point related to today’s topic is TRUST! Trust however, will require excellent communication between the parties. What is interesting though, is as a consequence of neutralization, greater trust could come about as it would help the actors to work together to resolve issues step by step and approach reunification through impartiality and from a perspective of being on the same team.

This is exactly what Kim Daejung and Noh Moohyung did with the Sunshine Policy between 1998 and 2008, to create an environment of trust with NK, by having no intention of absorbing NK (which China and NK fear). and by actively pursuing peaceful cooperation and interaction with NK (through joint economic projects for ex.)

At the six-party talks, President Noh Moo-Hyun created an environment of trust by designating the NK nuclear development as an issue to be resolved through dialogue between the US and North Korea. Furthermore, he did not define North Korea as a threat and fought against sanctions, which in his opinion, could not stop the nuclear development.

In this manner, SK separated the problem from NK. Moreover, this environment of trust could be further developed through neutralization, in my opinion.

There are many models on which the Korean neutralization could be based. I think the Swiss model of “active neutrality” is particularly interesting.

  • On July 27, 1953, when the armistice of the Korean War was signed, Switzerland as a neutral nation was appointed along with Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, as members of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC). Today, only the Swiss and Swedish delegations remain, as the two others were dismissed with the end of the Cold War.
  • However, the NNSC’s role as a neutral and independent entity remains important on the Korean peninsula through Confidence Building Measures, as was explained last year at one of UPF’s Webinars by General Patrick Gauchat, the then head of the Swiss delegation.
  • General Gauchat emphasized the growing number of confidence-building measures undertaken on the military side as the basis to achieve a peace treaty on the political level.
  • Some examples are the removal of mines in the DMZ, joint recovery operations, demolition of guard posts, and technical agreements on maintenance—all of which are reported to both parties to diminish tensions and transform the DMZ into a peace zone.
  • The NNSC also proposed different CBMs, such as increased joint exercises, depth of observation, check of the absence of weapons, and decreased numbers of US troops.
  • General Gauchat said that the added value of the NNSC is appreciated by all the parties as the “only neutral body contributing to diminishing the risk on the DMZ.”
  • In this manner, the participation of Switzerland in the NNSC since 1953 marked the beginning of Switzerland’s active neutrality! Active neutrality is not just about a promise of military nonintervention and impartiality, but also gives Switzerland the mission to promote peace and security as a neutral nation at the DMZ as well as in other zones of tension around the globe. Moreover, neutrality has allowed Switzerland to develop multilateralism and be a host of the UN Office in Geneva.
  • This idea is similar to what former president Noh Moo-hyun visualized for Korea to become a regional hub and balancer by taking on the “task of mediation and resolution of conflict” to help solve territorial and historical issues in Northeast Asia.
  • Therefore, could the model of Switzerland’s active neutrality be applied to Korea, and could Korea contribute in this same manner to peace in the region and around the globe?
  • On a personal level, I believe that a permanent neutral Korea could take on a mission of Promotion of Peace, as well as become the host of a 5th UN Office for Asia at the DMZ, which is the vision the founders of UPF have shared. I believe this could become an important incentive to create a permanent neutral and unified Korea.

I would like to conclude here. These ten minutes were very dense in information. So, if you have any questions regarding references, or regarding the history of neutralization attempts, feel free to contact me. Thank you very much for your attention.

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