A Neutralized ‘Confederation of Korean States’

A peaceful unification solution in the era of the two-state system on the Korean Peninsula

By Dr. Sangwoo Lim

Sangwoo Lim is a Professor Emeritus of Sogang University and the President of the International Association for Neutralization of Korea (IANK). The following is speech at the founding of IANK on June 24, 20024, in Incheon, South Korea.

North-South de-coupling and war crisis

In December 2023, North Korea’s Kim Jeong-Un declared a “hostile two-country system” and national separation, and then proceeded to implement related follow-up measures. Now, the Korean Peninsula is entering a new era of inter-Korean relations as well an era of great transformation in world history. In order to understand the background of this great transformation, it is necessary to look first at the internal situation of North Korea.

It can be said that North Korea’s most urgent request is recognition of the regime. Although North Korea is a member of the United Nations, not only is it not recognized by the United States, the world’s hegemon, but its survival is openly threatened. In the face of the existential crisis of regime collapse, North Korea was faced with the desperate task of facing the real threat of military absorption and unification as the Camp David triple (quasi-)alliance among the United States, Japan, and South Korea is in effect.

On the other hand, North Korea’s ultimate provision for national unification was an ideological goal that ensured the legitimacy of its leaders and solidified their rule over its people. Accordingly, whenever the atmosphere for inter-Korean exchanges was ripe, there was no justification for rejecting exchanges and cooperation based on the pure national passion of Korean unification activists. However, looking back, it is possible to guess that North Korea was implicitly reluctant to infiltrating capitalist culture that followed the exchanges of nationalistic good will.

In summary, it can be said that North Korea was constantly seeking a decisive alternative to resolve the risks of unification by military absorption in the short term and unification by cultural absorption in the long term. At last, it must be understood that North Korea chose to declare national separation and a hostile two-nation system as a viable alternative to protecting its system against their military and cultural aggressions. The direct reason for making this epoch-making decision seems to be, above all, an attempt to block the possibility of unification by military and cultural absorption by South Korea once and for all, 

North Korea’s struggle for survival should be seen as resulting in a great strategic transition that can be called a ‘continental turn.’ The Putin-Kim Jong-Un summit at a Russian space base in September 2023 and Putin’s summit visit to North Korea on June 19, 2024 can be evaluated as the prelude to a groundbreaking ‘North Korea-Russia cooperation system’ that responds to the trends of the new Cold War era. This should be seen as North Korea establishing a new geopolitical-economic status under the ‘new Cold War’ structure that is becoming clearer by the day. It should not be overlooked that in the midst of a rapid change in the international balance of hegemonic power, North Korea, which was armed with nuclear weapons through a ‘turn from the ocean to the continent’, is showing its resolute will, even expressing confidence that it can seek diplomatic, military, and economic sustainability and independence.

Meanwhile, North Korea had an ocean–oriented strategic structure that sought to secure security through recognition of the regime by the United States on the one hand, and seek an escape from economic pressure only through negotiations with the United States on the other. Now, North Korea’s ‘continental turn’ is an attempt to find a way out through a continent-oriented cooperation system that incorporates the Eurasian economic system currently pursued by Russia. Moreover, it is worth noting that as the military and economic offensive of the triangular alliance of maritime powers becomes stronger, the relationship between Russia, China, and North Korea is highly likely to develop into a military and strategic triangular cooperation system, if not an alliance system. Korea has been invited to the NATO summit in Washington, in July 2024, and there are indications that a stronger ‘NATO-Pacific cooperation system’ will be formed. Now, the world is revealing the true nature of an overt confrontation between continental and maritime powers in the new Cold War structure. 

This ‘geopolitical-economic turn’ in North Korea can also be called a “jump to Eurasia,” and the result is a permanent crisis of “de-coupling” between North and South Korea. As this happens, not only will dialogue for unification be completely barricaded, but the Korean Peninsula will remain at the forefront of hegemonic clashes between superpowers and live with the constant risk of war.

Creative accommodation of the two-state system: Neutralization of the Korean Peninsula

Looking back, dialogues between North and South Korea have continued intermittently for about half a century since 1972, despite experiencing twists and turns on the way. Even in the midst of sometimes armed conflict, one great principle was maintained without change: the spirit of national community was maintained. In accordance with the principle that had been unchanged in the spirit of all of the inter-Korean agreement documents of 1972, 1991, 2000, 2007, and 2018, both North and South Korea regarded national unification as their top priority as a constitution and national policy. However, there is an urgent need to acknowledge that North Korea’s declaration of breaking away from the great principle of national identity resolutely expressed their will to isolate the North and South and enter into a state of permanent standoff that cannot be reconciled.

If the ‘maritime triangular alliance’ versus ‘continental triangular cooperation’ system remains entrenched on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia, national unification will remain a distant dream. There is always a possibility that the continental triangular cooperation system will develop into a de facto military alliance, and if that happens, our people will be exposed to constant war sentiments and live with the risk of accidental collisions that may result in a full-scale war. Above all, North Korea is currently crossing the ‘bridge of no return’ toward national separation. If we do not grasp this at all costs, our people will have to live as two permanently hostile countries in a state of permanent division. Now, under the two-state system on the Korean Peninsula, it has become a desperate task for the survival of the nation for the North and South to maintain national identity and find a way to avoid war.

At this point, we need to raise the question freshly, ‘why unification?’ It cannot be denied that numerous unification movement groups in Korea, which have taken ‘We are one people’ as their supreme command, have pursued unification movements largely by relying on rather emotional and value-oriented nationalism. However, the rapid changes in the international situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula and North Korea’s declaration of national separation no longer allow such passions and values. Now, rather than the pointless claim that we must unify ourselves because we are one nation, we need to face the opposite logic and face the realistic international situation that only unification can protect the security of the nation. Here, paradoxically, nationalism is summoned again. This time, it is not emotional nationalism, but existential nationalism. It is time to hold on to North Korea, which is crossing the ‘bridge of no return’, and persuade it to face the fact that national separation will only lead to the destruction of the nation as a whole. To this end, it is time to acknowledge North Korea’s desperate realistic needs and seek creative solutions toward national common prosperity.

Since joining the United Nations simultaneously, South and North Korea have been two distinct national entities in the international community. Both Koreas had been trying hard to avoid recognizing this two-country system due to each other’s domestic needs. But this time, North Korea has decided to independently declare a two-country system. And that, it is a hostile and destructive two-country system. Now we must creatively accept the two-country system that clearly exists on the Korean Peninsula and sublimate it into a symbiotic and peaceful two-country system. The goal of a peaceful two-state system is to completely exclude the risk of civil war, including the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons. The prerequisite for this is that, above all, Korea must escape military dependence from the United States, while also completely dispelling North Korea’s concerns about the security of its system and unification through absorption by South Korea. As will be presented below, the solution to achieve this goal is the formation of ‘Confederation of Korean States’ and the permanent neutralization of the Korean Peninsula, 

Now, facing desperate crisis of national separation and national destruction, we must avoid (1) the path of absorption and unification and (2) the path of the hostile two-country system, and (3) promote peace and prosperity for the Korean people, ultimately leading to independent national unification. It is high time to use imagination to find a ‘third way.’ Given that the ultimate reason for realizing unification is to achieve coexistence and prosperity for the Korean people, should there be a realistic way to secure coexistence and prosperity on the road to unification, this should be pursued first. This solution is to build up the ‘Confederation of Korean States’ that is permanently neutralized.

Nevertheless, since the Korean War, the national policy of resolving the conflict between North and South Korea on its own has been subordinated to the international hegemony strategy of the surrounding powers, especially the United States, the actual operator of the ROK-US military alliance. In other words, under the name of the ‘ROK-US Mutual Defense Treaty,’ South Korea’s important economic and military policies toward North Korea must be discussed with the United States or, in fact, can even be said to receive prior approval. It is clear that this is a situation that any independent country could not endure. However, it is also clear that South Korean government is in a position not to take the lead in pursuing its foreign policy for security and unification without going beyond the logic of diplomacy based on the terms of great powers and their conceptual framework of international politics that only reinforces it. Therefore, convinced that only the imagination and driving force of the civil movement is the way to join hands with the cause of the international peace movement and achieve this urgent cause, the ‘International Association for Neutralization of Korea’, launched today, proposes a third way at home and abroad as follows.

‘Peace Treaty of Korean Peninsula’ and Neutralized ‘Confederation of Korean States’

A new paradigm must be presented that can break through the above framework of dependence and establish a peace regime not only on the Korean Peninsula but also in Northeast Asia. First of all, we must end the armistice system that has lasted for more than 70 years on the Korean Peninsula. In addition, as we enter the New Cold War era, the Korean Peninsula must avoid a state of hostile division in which it operates as an arena of hegemonic competition between continental and maritime powers, and become a region that operates as a buffer zone where the great powers compromise and adjust their mutual interests. To achieve this goal, it is essential that the de facto two-country system operates as a single political entity, the ‘Confederation of Korean States.’ In addition, this confederation must remain as a buffer zone in an internationally recognized state of permanent neutrality in order to escape military interference from powerful countries, protect the security of the North and South Korea, and further contribute to the peace regime in Northeast Asia.

In order to achieve such a peace regime, the ‘Peace Treaty of the Korean Peninsula’ must be settled as a comprehensive framework that simultaneously addresses the various conditions for neutralized Confederation of Korean States. In other words, the four parties in the Korean War (Korea, North Korea, the United States, and China) must conclude a peace treaty to end the state of war. Once it is signed by concerned countries, most of difficult matters can be resolved in one package without the preliminary measures for peace such as the declaration of ending the war, a non-aggression pact between South and North Korea, making the Korean Peninsula a nuclear-weapon-free zone, arms reduction, etc.

What is key in the negotiation process for this is, on the one hand, guaranteeing North Korea’s regime, and on the other hand, obtaining international recognition for the launch of the North-South Union, preventing permanent division and war, and securing the path to ultimate national unification. To maintain these two goals, what is needed as a safety measure is the ‘permanent neutralization of the Korean Peninsula.’ To achieve this, a supplementary treaty to the Comprehensive Peace Treaty or a separate treaty between North and South Korea must be concluded and internationally recognized. The Korean Peninsula Peace Treaty is not limited to the purpose of maintaining peace on the Korean Peninsula. The legitimacy of this treaty can be found in the fact that by establishing a buffer zone called the neutral Korean Peninsula, the mutual interests of powerful countries are adjusted and a peace regime is established in Northeast Asia that is beneficial to all parties.

This was a comprehensive settlement that achieved both independence and neutrality at once, as seen in the neutralization process of Austria (1955). Of course, there were domestic political conflicts in the process, but the left and right political parties united for the national cause to achieve independence, and the method of achieving this was neutralization. But it is difficult to compare the situation in Korea horizontally with the case of Austria, as there are two countries that have experienced war on the Korean Peninsula and the political parties within Korea are showing extreme antagonism. Nevertheless, there is no denying that these are differences that must be converged toward the national cause of independence and prosperity.

Recently, the words ‘end-of-war declaration’ and ‘peace agreement’ have frequently appeared in the peace movement of civic groups or in the government’s official unification policy in South Korea. However, we must go beyond this concept of ‘agreement’ and approach it as a more permanent concept of ‘treaty’. Of course, in actual diplomatic history, there is no clear distinction between the scope of effect between an agreement and a treaty, and it is true that there is no significant difference between an agreement and a treaty if they are on the verge of being destroyed. However, treaties, especially peace treaties, are concluded when several belligerents wage war on a relatively large scale over a prolonged period of time and finally put an end to it permanently. In theory, they have permanent effect, and in reality, they are the highest level in the international community. Also, domestically, since treaties must be ratified by the National Assembly, it is possible to avoid the vicious cycle in which numerous agreements made between North and South Korea have become meaningless.

In light of the examples of world-historical peace treaties, the negotiation process for this treaty is bound to proceed for a considerable period of time (e.g., 6 months to 1 year) with the concerned countries setting up camps in symbolic locations such as Panmunjom. This is because there are bound to be difficulties in resolving numerous difficult problems resulting from the expected conflict of interest between super powers. However, once all possible difficult issues (for example, the issue of withdrawal of U.S. forces linked to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula) are put on the negotiating table and the issues are coordinated through an exchange of interests, the form of a comprehensive treaty that deals with the contents is not so complicated. First of all, the declaration of ending the war and the declaration of non-aggression between South and North Korea can be resolved with just the declarative phrases in the preamble of the treaty. In addition, all related matters, such as the key components of neutralization, such as the non-alliance clause, the ban clause against foreign military entry, the denuclearization agreement on the Korean Peninsula(or Northeast Asia), the Korea Economic Community agreement, and the East Asia Free Economic Zone agreement, are collectively included in the provisions of this treaty or in the annexed agreements. It may be anticipated that all of these issues should reach at agreement and settled simultaneously at a single negotiating table. 

For your information, it is very delightful that actions in line with the above suggestions are being carried out in some corners of the American political world. Currently, Brad Sherman, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, proposes the ‘Korean Peninsula Peace Act (HR 1369)’ to Congress, calling for the ‘Peace Treaty of the Korean Peninsula’ to finally end the Korean War and establish a peace regime. It is extremely disappointing and shameful that proposals to pursue such a ‘peace treaty’ are rarely seen in Korea’s National Assembly or political circles.

‘Confederation of Korean States’: ‘One-People, Two-State System’ culminating in unification

What makes the ‘Korean Peninsula Peace Treaty’ possible and guarantees permanent neutrality internationally is the framework of balance of power through mutual checks by neighboring superpowers. But in order to ultimately and permanently guarantee this, it is only possible if North and South Korea are bound together under one national entity. It is because that, if the current state of confrontation between two countries with different systems continues, then the changes in the international situation and the interests of superpowers will once again give them the hilt to decide the fate of the nation, and the dream of prosperity as a unified neutral country will become faint. Only when North and South Korea recognize each other and form a single political entity that is recognized internationally, called the Confederation of Korean States, can we escape the strategical chessboard of superpowers and preserve our right to self-determination. Nevertheless, since there are clear historical and practical limitations in forming a unified nation right now, the process of establishing a unified nation has no choice but to go through the following several steps.

One of the most important prerequisites in the step-by-step unification process is that each political entity of South and North Korea must be mutually recognized as members of the same nation. In other words, for the time being, further discussions cannot progress without recognizing the status of one people in two states. This is qualitatively different from the ‘One Nation, Two Systems’ principle disputed between China and Taiwan. This is because it is a provisional principle based on the premise that China will one day absorb and unify Taiwan. In the current situation where immediate chemical union is impossible, we should recognize ‘one people, two states’ for the time being. Then we will step by step build the ultimate unified state, as the leaders of North and South Korea have already agreed to start the unification process with a “low-level federal system.” 

The first step was to conclude a peace treaty encompassing permanent neutralization and, at the same time, North and South Korea form together the ‘Confederation of Korean States’ which is to establish a political structure consisting of one nation, two states, and three governments (two autonomous governments of the ROK and the DPRK in addition to a government of the Confederation). In other words, the two states, North and South, shall retain their respective sovereignty (including the rights of national defense and independent diplomacy), but form a higher-level national coalition government and grant it the authority to pursue the process for ultimate unification. The model for this national union would be the European Union (EU).

The second step is to establish a ‘Korean Economic Community’ and ‘Northeast Asian Free Economic Zone’ following the example of the ‘European Economic Community (EEC).’ Since ultimate unification requires not only a political cohesion but also a relative balance at the economic level of both states, it is necessary to secure a certain level of economic compatibility between North and South Korea by jointly operating the economic union.

In the third step, after a certain period of time agreed upon by both countries, the ‘Federal Republic of Korea’ will be formed again to take a step closer to the ultimate unification of the nation with a system consisting of one nation, one federal government, and two regional governments. Goes. This is a realization of the “low-level federal system” agreed upon by North and South Korea in 2000. This will make it possible to cooperate for the common prosperity of the people and further establishes a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia. 

As the final stage, when the conditions are mature and the time comes (preferably before 2045, the 100th anniversary of division), our long-held goal of unification of one people, one country, and one government will naturally be achieved. The above procedures need to be irreversibly committed to a later date by specifying the deadlines for each stage with declarative or mandatory provisions in the ‘Peace Treaty of Korean Peninsula.’

Achieving permanent security and independence through the principle of ‘Neutrality First, Unification Later’

In the discourse of unification, which is the whole nation’s aspiration, the realistic constraints that run counter to it are as profound as the intense emotional national sentiment that is unprecedented in world history. However, the realist approach to these constraints has tended to be relatively overlooked. Unification is neither possible nor meaningful unless these realistic obstacles are resolved. For example, if we unconditionally follow the sentiment for unconditional unification or even the attempt of unification by absorption, it means that North Korean residents should be treated as second-class citizens, let alone the enormous unification costs that South Korean residents must pay. If that is the case, what is the purpose of unification and the national homogeneity other than a simple lip service? In this sense, it should be emphasized that the ‘Confederation of Korean States’ is essential as a gradual step toward reversing the national separation, maintaining national identity, escaping from being subject to division and rule by superpowers, and promising ultimate unification in a foreseeable future.

In a sense, the conditions of neutralization as a prerequisite for unification may be identified as the very goal of unification. If unification means not fighting each other and prospering together, then the conditions for neutralization are the very goals themselves. In other words, permanent neutralization guarantees permanent security and independence in advance of unification. In addition, neutralization is the only method of unification and further an effective way to maintain a stable state of independence even after unification. Therefore, in order to achieve the ultimate goal of unification, the Korean Peninsula must first be neutralized. In summary, it is the principle of ‘neutrality first, unification later.’

This process of permanent neutralization of the Korean Peninsula requires, above all, Korean citizens to be aware of the turbulent trends in current world and take the lead in the neutralization movement with strong unity. On the other hand, since neutralization is essentially based on international recognition and agreement, we must persuade the international community that neutralization of the Korean Peninsula is the most reasonable shortcut to establishing a peace regime in Northeast Asia and further presents an exemplary case of world peace. Here, today, in this endeavor, we would like to find the significance and goals of launching this organization, ‘International Association for Neutralization of Korea.’  

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash