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Publications [IFANS PERSPECTIVES]Seeking Korean Neutralization in 19th Century: Yu Gil-Jun’s On Neutrality and Sino-Korean Relations Jong-Hak KIM Upload Date 2021-04-14 Hits 3954
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 I.  Introduction
Ⅱ. On Neutrality (1885)
Ⅲ. Process of Belgium and Bulgaria’s “Neutralization”
Ⅳ. Sino-Korean Relations in the 19th Century
V. Conclusion



 I.  Introduction

The “Korea Problem”first emerged as an important international issue of Northeast Asia during the 19th century. Since then, and throughout the Cold War period of the 20th century to the present day, “neutralization of the Korean peninsula”has been incessantly proposed as a plausible model underpinning the stability of the peninsula and the region, as well as a goal that unified Korea should aspire to. In most cases, the concept of neutrality referred to permanent neutrality. This is a legal status which forbids the country from engaging in direct armed aggression against another state or assisting other warring states, with the sole exception of territorial self-defense. Permanent neutrality is distinct from wartime neutrality in that, unlike the latter which only is effectuated during war time, the former does not allow a state to enter into alliance treaties or provide parts of their territory as a military base to other states even during peace time.

In this context, the doctoral dissertation submitted to Princeton University in 1910 by Rhee Syng-man, the first president of South Korea, titled Neutrality as Influenced by the United States, holds great significance. Rhee’s political adviser Robert T. Oliver makes the following observations on the historical and geopolitical background of the assertion for Korea’s neutrality.

Just so, Korea has proved through forty centuries of history to have a special importance to the peace of Asia. … And it is inescapably evident that in Asia’s long history, Korea has been a crucial area. Its primary role has been that of a buffer state. Never strong militarily and never ambitious for expansion, Korea has not in itself been a threat to anyone. Its significance lies now (as it has in the past) in the fact that it occupies the strategic heartland of north Asia, surrounded by China, Japan, and Siberian Russia. So long as Korea is truly independent, these powers are kept apart and the peace of Asia is safe. As soon as Korea is dominated by one of them, the other two are endangered. This is a truism impossible to avoid. It is the basis for Korea claims that (like Switzerland in Europe) it is to the fundamental advantage of the Great Powers to insure two things: (1) that Korea be protected against aggression; and (2) that this be accomplished without reducing it to a pawn or satellite of any one or any group of outside nations. If this contention seems self-contradictory, the answer is that it once was done for Belgium and still is being done for Switzerland; it must be done for Korea if the consequences of general war are to be avoided.

According to Oliver, Korea was a “strategic heartland”where great powers - China, Japan, and Russia – intersected, and a “crucial area”which served for thousands of years as a buffer zone that mitigated clashes between them. As long as Korea maintains its independence, Asia’s peace is guaranteed. If one of the three powers come to occupy Korea, the other two will be put at risk, and this means a disruption of regional order in Northeast Asia. Thus, in order to prevent this from happening, discussions have ensued on referring to the precedence of Belgium or Switzerland in Europe and protecting Korea from external threats while simultaneously preventing it from being relegated to a protectorate or satellite state of another country.

Although permanent neutrality refers to a special legal status, it does not necessarily mean that all issues can be resolved by international law. Historically, permanent neutrality manifested itself in different forms depending on international circumstances and the national interests of neighboring powers. One needs to look no further than 19th century Europe to find the example of Switzerland, a country which had been recognized as a permanent neutral state based on its longstanding tradition of armed neutrality, or the case of Belgium, which was given a de-facto obligation of assuming permanent neutrality as a condition for its independence from the Netherlands. In contrast to Belgium, Luxembourg’s position of permanent neutrality was established based on the collective guarantee of the signatory states of the Treaty of London (1867), and was thus substantially different in its legal effect compared to the individual guarantees given to Belgium. 

What does this mean? If a weak country like Korea was to gain the status of a permanent neutral state in the 19th century, it first needed to have an in-depth understanding of and meticulously analyze the international political landscape, in particular, the strategic goals of surrounding powers and their geopolitical interests. As an historical example of such an analysis, I would like to review the treatise titled On Neutrality (中立論, 1885) by Yu Gil-Jun (俞吉濬, 1856-1914). He was the first Korean to ever study abroad in Japan and the United States. At the time, no one in Korea had better knowledge of international politics and Western learning than Yu. This combined with his foreign languages proficiency, Yu was able to have a long and distinguished career in diplomacy. And during the Gabo Reformation which was pursued by the intervention of Japan during the 1st Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), Yu served in key government positions and became responsible for laying the theoretical foundations for the reform drive. 

On Neutrality was the first paper by a Korean to present the idea of Korean neutralization. In reviewing this, I would reassess the structural constraints and possibility of Korea’s neutrality in 19th century by seeking answers to following questions. If the asymmetry in Sino-Korean relations is the fundamental factor defining the constant geopolitical conditions of the Korean peninsula, how did Yu Gil-Jun think Korea could overcome this structural limitation and achieve neutrality? As it will be discussed later on in the paper, Yu Gil-Jun focused on the cases of Belgium and Bulgaria in his thesis. What was the reason?


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