On July 27, the Korean Armistice Agreement that ended the bloodshed on the Korean Peninsula turned 70 years old. While the agreement did not bring a comprehensive peace – technically the two sides are still at war – it stopped the dying and laid the foundation for the separate development of two Koreas, locked in a state of constant mutual threat. That threat has been nuclear at least since the North developed its first indigenous bomb around 2006. Today it is getting worse, with the rapid development of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs and the South extracting nuclear assurances from the United States with the visit of a U.S. nuclear submarine in Busan.
While the U.S. and much of the world community might wish for de-escalation and ultimately denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it must be recognized that all attempts to achieve that goal will fail as long as international political conditions to guarantee the survival of both political regimes are missing. Looking at what happened to Iraq, Libya, and Ukraine, the North Koreans would be quite frankly unwise to give up their nuclear stockpile without another ironclad guarantee for their safety. Solving the nuclear issue requires this political prerequisite to be addressed first.
The question is if denuclearization is even possible within a divided peninsula, or if a unification scheme might provide the key to success. The latter is most likely the case. A successful reunification must naturally go hand-in-hand with arms reduction, which could include a phasing-out of the mutual nuclear threat. If Korea can solve its Mexican standoff, the nuclear question will become redundant.
Unification Through Neutralization
Save a geopolitical miracle, North Korea will remain tethered to China not only economically but also as a buffer state to the U.S. military threat. Likewise, South Korea remains dependent on its military integration with Washington to deter the North. Hence the fate of the peninsula is tied to the interests of their respective guarantor states. “Solving Korea” is a four-way game. Even if there was an inner-Korean peace deal, it would be spoiled by one of the guarantors if they felt the change would threaten their interests.
Hence, other things being equal, only a win-win-win-win situation has any chance of success. For the two Koreas, this would mean unification, as both have been longing for this outcome for the past 70 years. It is often the German experience of 1989-90 that is cited as a model for Korean unification but a more realistic path is, in fact, the one Germany explicitly rejected – namely a permanent neutralization.
The literature on Korean neutrality is vast and there is no lack of ideas or arguments of why a neutral peninsula would be a good thing. Our argument is different in the sense that we are able to show how a neutralization process in both Koreas separately could realistically lead to the desired outcome. Concretely, we are proposing the concepts of “Finlandization” for the North and “Austriazation” for the South as a way toward unification.
The Finlandization of North Korea
“Finlandizing” North Korea would mean changing the current China-North Korea mutual defense treaty toward a security agreement akin to the one the Soviet Union used to have with Finland. This partial alliance guaranteed Moscow that Finnish territory would not only be off-limits to its adversaries, but that the Finns were contractually bound to the defense of the Soviet Union should an attack through their territory on the USSR be attempted. The crucial point is that this was not a universal mutual defense pact but a limited one, securing the USSR’s northwestern flank.
The agreement also provided for bilateral consultations and the option of Soviet support for Finnish defense. Importantly, there was no automatism prescribed in the treaty. Finland was only obliged to come to the aid of the USSR in case of an attack through its own territory, which would have already triggered Finnish defenses anyhow and is therefore very different from a traditional mutual defense obligation like NATO’s Article 5.
For North Korea, one can reason in analogous terms. Since China is a great power with a nuclear triad and all possible capabilities of self-defense, the only real danger Beijing faces from the Korean Peninsula is the stationing of hostile nuclear or conventional assets near its southern border, only a few hundred kilometers from major industrial hubs and its own capital city, or from troops that could invade its territory from that flank. There is little hope that the North Korea could come to the help of China in case of a confrontation between Chinese and U.S. navies, nor would its military be useful in the case of a war with India or another distant neighbor. North Korean troops and military assets are of little value to Beijing other than for the defense of hostilities emanating from the territory of the South or the Sea of Japan/East Sea.
To China, North Korea’s strategic value is the buffer function it plays. A change from the current mutual defense treaty to a Finnish-style agreement in which North Korea promises to defend itself and China against attacks through its territory would not only be in line with current North Korean defense policy, but also guarantee China exactly the same benefits that it already enjoys today under the current treaty. Furthermore, a provision like Article 4, that the territory of North Korea can under no future agreement be made part of a hostile alliance to China, would further enhance Chinese security by ensuring that in a reunified Korea, no hostile troops or assets could be stationed in the northern territories.
Such an agreement would not be a change to the status quo; it would not represent a additional security benefit to China. It would, however, enable North Korea to take a decisive step toward a neutral position, compatible with a reunified neutral state.
Austriazation of South Korea
For its part, South Korea could aspire to follow an Austrian model to achieve a neutral position of its own. In 1955, Austria agreed not to join any military alliance and not to allow any foreign military bases on its territory as a condition to regain independence from the four post-war occupation powers. However, there was no ideological neutrality. Austria quickly adopted Western values and started a process of integration in the market economy, which eventually led to its accession to the European Union in the 1990s. This development was accepted by the Soviet Union, mainly because Austria did not become a member of NATO.
In terms of military capabilities, some neutral countries – foremost Sweden and Switzerland – experimented with the development of nuclear weapons, reasoning that such capabilities would be necessary to independently defend their territories in case of a hostile (Soviet) intervention. Austria, by contrast, quickly became a model for the concept of a Central European Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) – a Polish idea – prescribing military disengagement from the blocs and a nuclear-free status of the participating states.
This concept of a conventionally armed but non-nuclear neutralist state is suitable for the first South Korean step toward security compatibility with the North. It would be based on a change in the current security treaty with the United States on the one hand, and a South Korean pledge concerning nuclear weapons on the other. The treaty change would have to be effected with the U.S. to the extent that the two countries agreed to shift from a reciprocal commitment of mutual defense to a unilateral commitment from the United States toward South Korea, in exchange for the continuous lease of extraterritorial military bases on the peninsula, in the same way, the Japan-U.S. security treaty functions.
A unilateral South Korean commitment to remaining nuclear-free is in line with current U.S. policy that rules out nuclear sharing, the deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear assets to South Korea, or even South Korea developing its own nuclear weapons. Beyond these commitments, South Korea would not have to give up its security ties with the United States or Japan. Procurement of weapons, exchange of military know-how, and even joint maneuvers to maintain interoperability would still be possible and should still take place. The goal would not be to disarm South Korea, just to initiate a neutralist foreign policy that signals future compatibility with that of the North.
Step by Step
Neutralization does not have to be complete from the beginning, as steps toward neutralism can be made without endangering North or South Korean security. Even the denuclearization of the North can be put off until actual unification negotiations start because, under a dual-neutralist framework, North Korea would not yet be pressured to abandon its nuclear capabilities. Likewise, the framework would give time for political and economic rapprochements, be it through working on a federalist future or through a slowly evolving inter-Korean customs union with limited supranational powers, akin to the early European Coal and Steel Community.
A “real” solution can only be negotiated in a process that would have to look similar to the “4+2 Talks,” through which modern Germany was established. In the Korean case, it would be a multilateral process involving the two Koreas plus the United States, China, Russia, and Japan – the members of the erstwhile Six-Party Talks – that would need to agree on a roadmap.
Nevertheless, the separate neutralization of the two Koreas is a step that can precede actual unification talks and could even be initiated by either North or South Korea or in consultation with each other. This has the advantage of giving much more agency to the Koreans in a geopolitical process that, at many crucial junctures, was taken over their heads. These dual processes do not preclude that the steps toward neutrality can happen simultaneously and be coordinated. They should be accompanied by a new dialogue between the North and the South, confidence building, and the resumption of cross-border exchanges.
In the end, a legally binding neutralization of a denuclearized but unified Korean state would be the ultimate goal to realistically solve the security conundrum in the region. China would benefit from these steps first by decreasing its own security commitment to North Korea while maintaining its strategic buffer, which would eventually grow to the entire size of the peninsula.
The United States, too, would gain from this arrangement as it would secure the status quo for as long as the peninsula was not completely neutralized, denuclearized, and politically stable. Once that was achieved, a phased-out troop withdrawal would free up valuable U.S. resources without leaving a power vacuum in Korea. Furthermore, the U.S. presence in Japan would remain unaffected.
To future-proof the agreement from a U.S. perspective, another provision from the Austrian State Treaty can function as a template, since it contained a clause guaranteeing Austria would never again join a union with Germany. For Korea, a similar treaty could expressly prohibit territorial claims of any external power (like China or Russia). In this way, a united peninsula could serve in perpetuity as a buffer zone, the way Switzerland buffered its neighbors for over 200 years.
The Korean Peninsula has always been a geostrategic hotspot. Had it been removed from great power rivalries, that would have benefitted all parties in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries alike. Maybe a baby-step approach toward neutralization from both ends can finally change the security dynamic.