A review of “Diplomacy for Korean Neutrality and Buffer Zones: Modern History & Implications”, a SEAS public seminar by Dr. Seung-Young Kim

By Hyeonjun Kim, PhD student, School of East Asian Studies

As tension from North Korea’s missile crisis and anxiety among its neighbouring countries emerge, questions on the regional situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula are gaining global attention. The lecture of Dr. Seung-young Kim, held on the 12th of October in the Arts Tower, gave us a chance to think about the two Koreas’ foreign relations in the light of diplomatic history. Dr. Kim’s argument on the failed attempts for neutrality and buffer zones in modern Korean history provided us with opportunity to consider how the great powers’ competition led to conflicts, shedding light on the international systematic context that has rendered North East Asia prone to recurring conflict.

Dr. Kim’s discussion on the impossibility of the neutral zone in the Peninsula can be theoretically analysed in terms of offensive realism. It suggests that due to the anarchic structure of international relations, great powers privileged the maximization of their influence, rather than the preservation of status quo in Northeast Asia. This tendency was intensified by the security dilemma, which depicts that efforts for the self-defence made by a nation are perceived by other nations as threats to their own security, thus leading them to take successive counter-measures, which end up posing the former greater threat, thus undermining its security. In Dr. Kim’s view, these theories can explain how both structural and agentive factors in the region caused the Sino-Japanese War (1884-1885) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), which eventually made Korea into a Japanese colony.

During the periods leading up to these wars, as China, Japan, the United States, Great Britain and Russia engaged in the power competition in East Asia, King Kojong of the late Chosun Dynasty sought to balance their influence by achieving neutralization of Korea with Russia’s assistance. As Ching China’s traditional influence had been maintained and Japan’s concerns were growing since the Imo Mutiny (1882), some Japanese policymakers, such as Inoue Kowashi, also promoted a similar approach with Kojong, supporting Korean neutrality through great powers’ guarantees. Japan began to pursue a confrontational strategy towards Ching and Russia. With progress in its military preparations to confront China, pro-war groups gained a dominant voice in the Japanese government as well. For Japanese leaders, to allow neutral status for Chosun Korea, Korea had to demonstrate its political resolve and willingness to uphold neutrality, and great power also had to explicitly announce their support for Korean neutrality. However, Japan perceived that Kojong was inviting Russia’s influence into the region and threatening Japan’s security interests. At that time, US diplomats in Seoul nurtured Kojong’s wishful expectations about Korean independence, although President Theodore Roosevelt was ready to support Japan’s predominance in the Korean Peninsula. Under such circumstances, Japanese foreign ministers who preferred exclusive influence over Korea recommended forceful military actions to remove Chinese influence on Chosun Korea. For Japan, the Sino-Japanese War was a kind of pre-emptive war to eliminate of the influence of China; and the Russo-Japanese War was the final match with Russia, which also demonstrated its intention to establish its sphere of influence in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula.

After the lecture, questions on the relations of regional power structure, decision-makers’ perception, and the responsibilities for Japanese colonial occupation were raised. Dr. Kim also answered by mentioning Japan’s coercive imposition of treaties such as the protectorate treaty of 1905, which deprived Korea’s diplomatic sovereignty. The lecture provided a good opportunity to reflect upon our understanding of geo-political setting of Korea in which competition between the recent US and China has taken place while exploring measures to address the North Korean nuclear issue. To prevent the recurring conflicts, the modern diplomatic history surrounding Korea shows that the great powers should maintain a strategic moderation and restraint over Korea, rather than attempting to maximize own influence. In addition, South Korea should also maintain a prudent diplomacy and develop adequate military strategy and capabilities, which can assure its neighbours about its role as stabilizing force for the region-wide security in Northeast Asia.