Neutrality of Korea: the Austrian example

Talk by Heinz Gärtner at the 3rd East Asia Peace Forum in Taipei

Neutrality of Korea: the Austrian example

Heinz Gärtner

The concept of neutrality has proven time and again that it can adapt to new situations. What are the big new challenges after the end of the Cold War? They are the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD); terrorism, which potentially holds new dangerous dimensions in combination with WMD proliferation; fragile and dysfunctional states, which can be breeding grounds for terrorism, a source of uncontrolled immigration, and a source for the development and dissemination of organized crime. They also contribute to the loss of important economic areas. Neutral states are well suited (in many ways better than other states) for making an important contribution to the fight against these new dangers. Neutral states sometimes show higher acceptance than members of alliances.

The Concept of Neutrality

The concept of neutrality has proven time and again that it can adapt to new situations. The notion that the concept of neutrality is a phenomenon and a part of the Cold War is false in many ways. First, the history of neutrality is much older; the Swiss idea of neutrality dates back to the fifteenth and sixteenth century. It received its legal basis in the Hague Convention of 1907. Second, neutrality was not constitutive of the Cold War but was its anomaly. The Cold War in Europe was about building blocs; neutrality was about staying out of them. Whereas the Cold War was the normal, neutrality was the exception. Austria’s neutrality played an important role in the debate in the early 1950s as a potential model for Germany and other Central European states to stay out of the two military blocs.

The most important features of any alliance are mutual defense obligations of its members. Neutrality and collective defense are negatively related. The non-membership in an alliance, anchored in the neutrality law or political convention, is a clear characteristic of neutrality. The most important feature of an alliance are the mutual obligations of assistance, which are incompatible with neutrality. When the importance of collective defense obligations – which come into force in case of an attack on a member state’s territory – increases, neutrality would acquire a different meaning. The consequence for neutrality would not be to engage, but to stay out again. Conversely, when alliance obligations are no longer necessary, the status of neutrality is no longer in question regarding this point. Neutrality means non-membership in an alliance based on political convention or on constitutional and international law.

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The Austrian Model

In October 1955, the Austrian National Assembly adopted a law on Austria’s permanent neutrality. It was Austria’s guarantee to the great powers that the country would not join any Eastern or Western military alliance. Ever since, neutrality has been at the center of its foreign and security policy. In Austria’s early, formative years, neutrality was synonymous with independence. It helped Austria to develop a strong identity for the first time since World War I, which is why Austrians support neutrality by more than a two-thirds majority. The core of Austria’s neutrality depends on its military nature. Military neutrality is enshrined in the Declaration of Neutrality: Austria may not join any military alliances, nor may foreign troops be stationed on its territory. The legal principle that neutral states are not allowed to participate in a war, in the sense of international law, was not regulated directly in the Declaration of Neutrality, but resulted from the prevailing understanding of neutrality.

The Federal Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Konrad Adenauer, rejected the concept of neutrality out of hand. He suspected conspiratorial tactics. While Chancellor Adenauer saw the concept of “armed neutrality” in Austria as a put-to-sleep-tactic by the Kremlin, at that time, it had been supported by U.S. President Eisenhower.

At a press conference in May 1955 Eisenhower said:

“It seems that the idea has developed that one could build a number of neutralized states from North to South through Europe. Now, remember: The Treaty regarding the neutralization of Austria does not mean that Austria would be disarmed. It is not a void, not a military void, it is along the lines of Switzerland. ... This kind of neutrality is very different from a military vacuum.”

During the Hungarian uprising in 1956 the Soviet Union suspected that the rebels would use Austria’s territory as their hinterland. The State Department of the newly re-elected Eisenhower Administration warned Moscow to respect Austria’s neutrality and even stated that its violation would be a case for a Third World War.

Austria’s neutrality protected Austria from outside intervention by a bloc member. During the period of bipolarity in the Cold War, the blocs were least informally recognized by the leading powers of the other bloc. Therefore, Eisenhower did not come to the aid of the Hungarian insurgents although the United States supported them rhetorically; President Johnson was silent during the Prague spring uprising in 1968; President Reagan only verbally supported the Polish protests in 1981. Using this analogy, Ukraine eventually cannot rely on the United States to go to war with a nuclear armed Russia.

Disengagement and Nuclear Free Zone Central Europe

In spite of the negative reaction towards Stalin’s notes on a “coalition free” Germany in 1952, suggestions were made for a neutral Central Europe after Austria had declared its neutrality (and after Stalin’s death). George F. Kennan, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow after 1947 and the father of the policy of “containment,” suggested in 1956 and 1957 to create a neutral Central Europe, because he did not believe there would be another way to unify Germany. He called Central Europe the “in-between-zone”. German Chancellor Adenauer called this proposal suicidal. Nevertheless, there were other attempts. U.S. Senators Hubert H. Humphrey and William F. Knowland started a bipartisan initiative. Their plan of 1956-1957 was to create a buffer zone and a simultaneous withdrawal of U.S. and Soviet troops from Germany and from the members of the Warsaw Pact. Eventually, such a buffer zone would be linked to the existing neutral states, namely Austria, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland. Similar ideas came from the chairman of the British Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell. U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said at a classified meeting of the National Security Council on February 6, 1958 that the United States and the Soviet Union agreed that a unified neutral Germany in the center of Europe could not be controlled and that unification should not be a goal of the U.S. policy. Meanwhile, the United States should do everything to “keep the Germans happy.”

Some neutral countries—such as Sweden and Switzerland—did experiment with the development of nuclear weapons, even as they sought to stay out of the military blocs of the Cold War. Western-bloc nations, such as Canada and Germany, did the same. But Austria already provided in the mid-1950s a different model. After declaring its neutrality in the second half of the 1950s, Austria became a model for the concept of a geographic zone without nuclear weapons in Central Europe—a concept known as the Rapacki Plan, after the Polish foreign minister who expanded upon the idea and formally introduced it to the world. It was a plan based on disengagement of the blocs and a nuclear-free status of the participating states. Austria’s State Treaty, which  was adopted in the same year (1955) as the Treaty on Neutrality, requests a nuclear-free status for Austria: “Austria shall not possess, construct or experiment with—a) any atomic weapon, b) any other major weapon adaptable now or in the future to mass destruction and defined as such by the appropriate organ of the United Nations …”

According to the Rapacki Plan, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany should become neutral, as was Austria. Because of the emerging concept of mutually assured destruction, however, the plan was not implemented, although it never died either.

Neutrality has been increasingly supplemented with an active foreign policy. Contrary to the Swiss model of “sitting still,” Austria joined the United Nations the same year (1955), the Council of Europe in 1956, and the European Free Trade Association in 1960. Austria presented itself as a meeting point, by hosting, for example, meetings between the Presidents of the United States and of the Soviet Union, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, and Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev in 1973. Last, but not least, thanks to this policy of neutrality, Vienna was chosen as the third UN capital and the seat of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), UN specialized agencies (e.g. UNIDO) and the secretariats of OPEC and the OSCE (formerly CSCE).

Neutrality for Korea?

No analogy works perfect. No models of other countries fit for the Korean peninsula entirely. Nevertheless, analogies help to understand experiences of other countries. Lessons can be learned from success and failure of other countries in similar situations. Usually, the German unification of 1989/1990 serves as a model for a potential unification of the Korean peninsula. Obviously, there are parallels: decades of separation, two diverse economic and political systems with different ideologies. However, the geopolitical situations of Germany at the end of the 20th century and of Korea today are very different. The unification of Germany became possible only because the Soviet Union, that controlled East Germany, disappeared. The geopolitical context in North East Asia by and large stayed the same since the end of the Korean War. Therefore, the Austrian experience might be worth consideration.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Austria was divided into four major zones and was jointly occupied by the United States, Britain, France in the West and South and the Soviet Union in the East of the country. Therefore, there was a danger of partition similar to the one in Germany. In its neutrality law of 1955 Austria agreed not to join a military alliance and not to allow any foreign military bases on its territory. The foreign soldiers finally retreated and Austria regained independence. 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 the accession to the European Union in the nineties. This development was accepted by the Soviet Union, mainly because Austria did not become a member of NATO.

The principles of the EU’s North Korean-policy, namely non-proliferation, regional stability and peace, and human rights are essential. Nevertheless, a solution without China and Russia will not be possible. Such EU priorities will hardly be helpful to bring these two countries on board,  especially China. To address this geopolitical difficulties the Austrian model can give some answers. A guarantee based on international law that a united Korea will not join a military alliance with the US might be acceptable for China and Russia. In addition, in a separate Austrian State Treaty certain capabilities of Austria’s military were limited. The State Treaty also guaranteed that Austria would not join a new union with Germany (Anschlussverbot), as it had happened in 1938. In the case of Korea, such a State Treaty could expressly prohibit territorial claims of any external power, whereby the unity of Korea should be guaranteed. In this way, a united peninsula could serve as a buffer zone among neighbouring countries. No foreign troops would be necessary on Korean soil. For a transition period, US-troops could remain deployed in the South of Korea. A phased-out withdrawal has to be negotiated among the new Korean government, the US, China and Russia. US presence will stay in Japan and on sea just like NATO-troops were present in Europe after the Second World War. After all, one of their roles was to keep Germany under control.

A denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula would also imply that North Korea withdraws heavy artillery from the demarcation line because it could destroy large parts of Seoul without nuclear weapons. In exchange, the DPRK would want the US-soldiers to be removed from South Korean territory or at least phased out. For NATO the withdrawal of US troops from Austrian soil after 1955 was not so much a problem because they could move to Germany. In East Asia they would still be deployed in Japan when they have left South Korea.

One important difference between the Austrian and Korean case should be born in mind though. Austria was only divided for ten years and mainly in military terms. It goes without saying that there was no such deep separation of two very different systems as it is in Korea. In a reunified Korea the two different systems might coexist for some time to come, politically, but in particular economically and psychologically. If this appears to be necessary, a united Korea with two different systems is only feasible on the basis of neutrality. Otherwise, the conflict lines in the region would simply reappear in the unified Korean state. In addition, a neutral state in its function of a buffer will reduce the confrontational structure in North East Asia, on the other hand.

European and American economic aid packages, similar to the post-World War II Marshall-Plan, would be essential for a reunified Korea. The combination of neutrality and the Marshall-Plan was a definite success for Austria. Moreover, one could argue that Austria’s neutrality law was the beginning of the détente policy between East and West.

These would all be options for united Korea in Asia. Participation and mediation represent potential areas of significant influence that neutral states can have in the realm of multilateral cooperation. The directions outlined above showcase that the Austrian model provides a long-term diplomatic solution that should be taken into consideration in the Korean peace process.