Summary: Tensions in Korea are running high. Yet one possible solution has been little explored: unification of the peninsula with China’s consent and under the leadership of the South. South Korea would assure China’s cooperation by pledging to become neutral, with US troops leaving the peninsula.
Commentators around the world scramble these days to give advice on how to dissolve the crisis caused by North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Proposals range from talks with the regime of Kim Jong-Un, to yet more sanctions and even war. The South Korean government is even trying to engineer a thaw by letting its athletes march together with those from North Korea during the opening ceremony for the Olympic Winter Games. The Games will start on 9 February in South Korea’s Pyeongchang County, less than 60 km from its border with North Korea. The two teams will even march behind a joint flag, the so-called Korean Unification Flag, which served the same purpose already on six international sports events during 2000-2006.
As those past uses of the flag did not prevent North Korea from pushing ahead with its nuclear programme, it is unlikely that things will work out differently this time.
Therefore, let us make a step back and consider an idea that could be a gamechanger in the history of the Korean Peninsula. This idea is the unification of North and South Korea under a status of everlasting neutrality.
Any solution needs to take into account China’s interests. The Korean peninsula is at China’s doorstep, and the Chinese are very sensitive about any threat that might reach them from Korea, be it North or South Korea. Just think of how sensitive the US is to any threat emanating from Cuba and you will understand how China views the peninsula and how irritating it finds the presence of US troops in South Korea and, even more so, the prospect of US troops approaching its own borders in case of a war between the two Koreas.
This is why China is so conflicted about North Korea. China’s leaders do not approve of Kim Jong-Un, who routinely snubbs China, whose deliveries of food and petrol provide a lifeline to his country. And a nuclear war on the peninsula would have repercussions for the Chinese provinces of Liaoning and Jilin bordering North Korea. Even Beijing is situated only 500 km west of the border.
It is therefore understandable that Kim has been called a “Mad Dog” by China’s press. Yet China also does not want US or South Korean troops to enter the North. Therefore, South Korea would need to tell China: if you help us to remove the regime of Kim Jong-Un and to unify the two Koreas under our leadership, we will assume neutrality. We will end the military alliance with the US and ask it to remove their troops from the peninsula.
Now this would be an attractive proposition for China! It would make it possible for China to get rid of Kim and of the US military’s presence on the peninsula at one stroke.
There is actually a historic precedence for such a move. After World War II, Austria was split, along with Germany, into four occupation zones: a Soviet one in the Eastern part of the country and US, British and French ones in the Western part. Compared to the Germans, though, which remained divided into to separate states until 1991, the Austrians had the advantage of having a single, unified government determined to get all foreign forces to leave the country. After lengthy negotiations, a window of opportunity opened with the death of Stalin in 1953. The Austrians proposed to the Soviets that they would assume a stance of everlasting neutrality after all foreign forces had left the country and the new Soviet leadership under Nikita Khrushchev accepted their proposal.
The main reason for the Soviets’ consent seems to have been strategic: by Austria becoming a neutral state, the overwhelming part of the Alps would become closed to NATO, since the other major Alpine country, Switzerland, is also neutral. In this way, NATO forces would be split into one part stationed south of the Alps and another part north of the Alps. And this is what happened. In 1955, all foreign forces withdrew from Austria, which for 35 years became the only European country, which the Red Army vacated voluntarily – that is, until to the general Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe in the years preceding the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The similarities are obvious: just as the Soviets agreed to give up Eastern Austria if the US and its allies left Western Austria, China could be persuaded to give up North Korea by the promise that a unified Korea would be neutral and free of US troops.
So far so good. But how to get rid of Kim Jong-Un and his regime?
For one, if there would be agreement between South Korea and China on a future unified Korea and if that agreement would be made public, this in itself will exert enormous pressure on the regime of Kim Jong-Un. This pressure should be increased by China stopping supplies to the North, including petrol but excluding rice and other basic foodstuffs. At the same time, China should offer asylum to Kim and his family and allow them to keep enough wealth to support themselves for their lifetime. There is a good chance that, sooner or later, Kim will accept such a proposal, as the alternative would be an increasing risk to be toppled by forces from within his country.
It is often said that Kim Jong-Un’s determination to acquire nuclear arms is motivated by the example of the former leaders of Iraq and Libya, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. According to these reports, Kim believes that the two dictators would still be alive had they possessed nuclear weapons. But this disregards the possibility that they would have been toppled sooner or later anyway by internal forces, just as the Soviet Union, to everybody’s surprise, collapsed in 1991 despite having a nuclear arsenal. And both Saddam and Gaddafi could have evaded their violent deaths, had they agreed in time to renounce power and go into exile.
Nobody knows the future. But South Korea should get the ball rolling by offering to China neutrality in exchange for China’s support for a Korea unified under the leadership of the South.