While the diplomatic fruit is ripe: An international commission on the Korean Peninsula

"While the diplomatic fruit is ripe: An international commission on the Korean Peninsula", Asia and the Pacific Policy Studies, 7(1) 2020.

Abstract: The Korean Peninsula is home to intermittent conflict and is an ongoing critical flashpoint. It is an entrenched, long-standing international problem—exactly what international commissions are designed to address. An international commission is an ad hoc transnational investigative mechanism, which dependent upon its sponsors and constitution can be thought of as either a temporary intergovernmental organization or nongovernmental organization (NGO). They are routinely led by senior, respected politicians or leaders and include a range of similarly respected commissioners, including government, military, academic, and NGO representatives. Their end goal is the production of a comprehensive and definitive report that will serve as a reference point for future diplomatic initiatives. Their strength lies in the power of ideas—the capacity to transform the way we think about entrenched, long-standing international problems. This article assesses the appropriateness of an international commission to address the long-term challenges of Korean Peninsula security and stability.


The Korean Peninsula is home to the longest-running civil war in the modern era and is an ongoing critical flashpoint. Thinking on how to resolve this challenge remains narrowly focused, unimaginative, repetitive, and often marked by crisis diplomacy—the interaction between states (and nonstate actors) under a heightened threat of systemic change and/or conflict (Richardson, 2011, p. 10). Crisis diplomacy requires high-level participation; the setting of limited, achievable goals; and actor flexibility to accept options previously deemed unacceptable. It does not transform the root causes of tension. In the Korean context, North Korea conducts limited or nondirectly attributable provocations—South Korea manages, de-escalates, and pursues confidence building until the inevitable collapse of diplomatic efforts (Robertson, 2017b). Reflecting this, the Moon administration's efforts are unlikely to transform the root causes of tension. Summit diplomacy was an ideal place to start, but more innovative, imaginative, and creative diplomacy is required to overcome the deeply entrenched, intractable international problems of the Korean Peninsula.

As a putative middle power (Choi, 2009, 2011; S. B. Kim, 2009; E. K. Kim, 2015; Bradford, Howe, O'Donnell, O'Neil, & Snyder, 2015; Watson, 2016), South Korea's policy options today should arguably be wider than ever before. Characteristic middle power diplomatic behaviour includes the active, innovative use of diplomacy; coalition building with like-minded states; niche diplomatic specialization in areas of national interest; and soft power, including the promotion of good international citizenship (Robertson, 2017a, pp. 361–362). Could middle power diplomacy transform the Korean Peninsula? This article argues in support of the establishment of a characteristic middle power diplomatic initiative—an international commission—as a means to progress the stalled Korean Peninsula peace process. 1


An international commission is an ad hoc transnational investigative mechanism, which dependent upon its sponsors and constitution can be considered as a temporary intergovernmental organization or nongovernmental organization (NGO; Wiseman, 2005, p. 61). They are unique in allowing and even encouraging creativity within the confines of international relations practice.

Called in recognition of the need to step outside the pressures of ongoing events, they have specific terms of reference, which allow the receipt of submissions; interviewing of witnesses; engagement with experts (including commissioned research, modelling, analysis, and advice); and in certain cases, public forums. They thus broaden the spectrum of contributors to international relations practice. This includes engaging experts in diplomatic processes; nuclear and missile technology; confidence building and military de-escalation; marketization and economic integration; and/or human rights, justice, and reconciliation. Organizers and sponsors can make conscious decisions to seek ideas that will transform accepted norms. International commissions encourage creativity.

At the same time, an international commission is a “systematic inquiry” (Wiseman, 2005, p. 61). They are routinely led by senior, often retired, politicians or leaders, and include a range of similarly respected commissioners, including senior government, military, academic, and NGO representatives. They are well resourced with the support of a single or several foreign ministries and/or multilateral agencies, and philanthropic foundations. Secretariats routinely follow rules of procedure, meeting agenda and records, representation and credentials, and reporting, which reflect multilateral settings. Their end goal is the production of a comprehensive and definitive report that will serve as a reference point for future diplomatic initiatives. International commissions conform to widely accepted norms of international relations practice.

International commissions are thus seeds of creativity planted within the strict confines of international relations practice—prioritizing the power of ideas, while at the same time providing confidence that concerns regarding sovereignty, security, nationalism, ideology, and great-power interests will be recognized. Reflecting the entrenched nature, the need for new ideas and workable solutions, an international commission is an appropriate diplomatic tool to be considered in efforts to address Korean Peninsula issues. This leads to the question, how would an international commission on the Korean Peninsula work?


Edward Luck (2000, p. 98) and Geoffrey Wiseman (2005, p. 61) use five criteria to assess international commissions. These same criteria can be simplified to highlight the appropriateness and requirements of using an international commission—novelty, promise, persuasion, distinction, and durability. I now explore these criteria in more detail in the context of the Korean Peninsula.

3.1 Novelty

To be successful, an international commission must “produce new ideas, concepts and proposals” (Wiseman, 2005, p. 61) or at least reconceptualize and/or rethink accepted ideas. International commissions routinely explore issues outside of the time pressures in political and bureaucratic settings that inhibit deeper investigation to allow creativity and innovation. The concept of sovereignty serves as an example. In the wake of the 1994 Rwanda genocide and the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, a number of states, NGOs, and multilateral bodies pointed to outdated notions of sovereignty as preventing humanitarian intervention. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, sponsored largely by the Canadian Government, transformed understanding of Westphalian sovereignty—a concept that had changed little since the seventeenth century. It transformed “old ways of thinking” in one of the most rigid international relations institutions (Madokoro, 2019, p. 116).

In the same way, the 1982 Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues (the Palme Commission report) transformed thinking about common security; the 1984 World Commission on the Environment and Development (the Brundtland report) brought sustainable development into the mainstream; and the 1992 Commission on Global Governance transformed thinking on United Nations reform in the aftermath of the Cold War. These commission reports today remain as required references in their fields.

It is important to note that although international commissions address transnational or global issues, they also serve national interests. The 1995 Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons addressed the global issue of nuclear nonproliferation but also served Australian national interests in drawing attention to French nuclear testing in the Pacific. Reflecting this, an international commission on the Korean Peninsula could address both global issues (denuclearization, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and threat reduction), as well as South Korea's national interests (peace and stability, confidence-building, reconciliation, short-range missiles, economic integration, etc.).

Since the 1954 Geneva Conference, there have been few international attempts to look at the “Korea question”—the broader challenges of peace, security, and division. The rationale for commencing talks (imminent conflict) and the issues addressed (security) have not provided space for more creative, broader approaches. By stepping outside the pressures of ongoing events, an international commission would allow consideration of a broader range of issues that rarely attract attention under the pressures of crisis diplomacy. Conceivably, it could consider the regional balance of power, regional governance, and institutions, as well as regional history (postcolonialism), truth, and reconciliation. It could address medium-term issues, such as economic cooperation, institution building, and reintegration into the regional and international communities. It could also address longer term issues, such as the multiple questions of Korean unification, ranging from amnesties to governance structures. Most importantly, an international commission could look at unconsidered or discarded approaches—ideas that are bold, innovative, refreshing, and even radical.

3.2 Promise

A successful international commission must gain the attention and support of high-level policymakers, domestically with political partners, internationally with partner governments and multilateral agencies, and ultimately with major powers (Wiseman, 2005, p. 62). This comprises two areas of consideration. First, the process must be seen as a whole-of-government, nationally supported, and globally relevant effort. Second, the process must be viewed as capable of success.

Domestically, an international commission on the Korean Peninsula would need to build public engagement and support. The South Korean public is politically, generationally, and geographically divided on North Korea (see Levin & Han, 2002; Shin & Burke, 2008; Kim & Lee, 2011; Jiyoon, 2015). There is no consensus on short- to medium-term policy, and no consensus on long-term goals. Further, the extremes of the political spectrum hold virulent, entrenched, polarized positions on Korean Peninsula security issues. An international commission could be used to build consensus through public engagement and international senior-level, recognized and respected, expert advice. The latter in particular, dependent upon the choice of commission members, would have a particularly powerful potential to transform public opinion in South Korea. Further, an international commission would extend the policy influence of an incumbent South Korean presidential administration by contributing ideas to future agendas.

Internationally, an international commission would need to ultimately persuade partner states of the desirability of novel and/or recommended approaches. This would include North Korea, China, the United States, Japan, and any other states potentially playing a role in efforts to reduce tension on the Korean Peninsula. To achieve this, the host state requires an adequately resourced diplomatic service, including an appropriate overseas physical presence, as well as the institutional capacity to incorporate and engage nonstate actors, such as academics, NGOs, business, and civil society in policy processes. States without adequate resources and/or connections require close material and political cooperation with host-partner states in order to ensure effective promotion.

South Korea has an adequately resourced diplomatic service with an appropriate overseas physical presence. In 2019, South Korea had 183 overseas posts (although many remain poorly resourced), including 114 embassies and 51 consulates. It holds an overall rank of 13 in the 2019 Lowy Institute Global Diplomacy Index of diplomatic networks (Lowy Institute, 2019). It also has the institutional capacity to incorporate and engage nonstate actors with a strong record of interaction with business and NGOs (see Watson, 2012). However, given the unique challenges, South Korea would benefit from close material and political cooperation with another or multiple middle power partners—ideally perceived as acceptable to all core stakeholders.

A host state also needs to be viewed as a credible actor. It cannot be seen as acting in any other country's interest. It needs to be recognized as capable of establishing and sustaining the initiative on the basis of its recent diplomacy. South Korea holds credibility as a diplomatic actor and as a state capable of launching an initiative. However, it holds less credibility as a state able to sustain the momentum of an initiative. With single five-year presidential terms, a weak party system, an executive-dominated bureaucracy, and a highly polarized ideological divide, continuity in foreign policy initiatives is not assured (Robertson, 2017b, pp. 3–4). Potential partner states could see five-year terms and the high degree of discontinuity as risks. A successful international commission would thus require further efforts to ensure bipartisanship, minor party support, and most importantly extensive public engagement to ensure continuity beyond the five-year presidential term.

A host state ultimately requires the support or at least acquiescence of interested major powers. An international commission perceived as impinging on the core national interests of a major power is less likely to succeed. That being said, often the aim of commissions (and all middle power diplomacy) is ultimately to constrain and limit the actions of more powerful states through the establishment of new norms. This means that in situations where major power core national interests are present, diplomatic method becomes ever more important. Although not driven by an international commission, the Ottawa Treaty process demonstrates that through the use of coalition building with civil society, and NGOs, and the use of fast-track diplomacy to pressure compliance, middle powers can succeed in initiatives that directly impact major power security interests.

In the context of the Korean Peninsula, the greatest challenge to a successful initiative would be the failure to secure major power acquiescence, or worse, to attract overt major power opposition. The Korean Peninsula is a strategic pivot. It represents a landing strip to the Chinese industrial heartland and a launching pad to the Japanese isles. It is a pillar of US strategy in East Asia. Control or influence over the peninsula has been and remains strategically important to major powers with an interest in the region. Accordingly, an international commission would need to demonstrate the ability to accommodate major power concerns or use a diplomatic strategy that substantially enhances negotiating leverage to overcome major power concerns. Thus, persuasion becomes perhaps the most important element of success.

3.3 Persuasion

A successful international commission must persuade core actors to become supporters of the commission's conclusions and recommendations (Wiseman, 2005, p. 64). For this reason, it would be incumbent on South Korea to seek, facilitate, and support North Korea's participation in an international commission. North Korea's historical recalcitrance and unpredictability means participation cannot be assured. However, the ultimate aim of a middle power in establishing an international commission is to internationalize the problem, build international support, and increase negotiating leverage vis-à-vis major powers. An international commission on the Korean Peninsula would provide an enhanced capacity to engage, mediate, and potentially overcome long-entrenched major power interests—something South Korea by itself is unable to do.

All states pursue national interests that are distinct from other states, friend and foe alike. In the same way, all interested parties addressing Korean Peninsula challenges pursue national interests that are in some way or another distinct from other interested parties. An international commission would allow South Korea to harness expertise, create new ideas, and work towards initiatives with other credible middle power partners, thus increasing its negotiating leverage vis-à-vis major powers.

Despite appearances and common assumptions, South Korea's strategic objective is not the same as the United States. In dealing with North Korea, the United States seeks to “remove the threat of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.” This makes sense for a state, which is under no direct threat, except by the introduction of operational nuclear and missile programs. Operational nuclear and missile programs make North Korea not just a threat to US interests (alliance partners and forward deployed forces) but also a direct threat to US sovereign territory. Understandably, to address this, the United States must seek to “remove the threat of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.” South Korea's strategic objective is distinct.

As a democratic, high-income country proximate to North Korea, conventional weapons and even instability are an equally direct threat to South Korea. The Pentagon estimates the first days of conflict could see fatalities of around 20,000 a day in South Korea. If artillery were to be combined with chemical and/or biological munitions, this toll would sharply increase (Freedman, 2017). Even without nuclear and missile programs, South Korea faces a direct threat to its survival as a functioning state. Reflecting this, arguably South Korea's core strategic objective is not to remove “the threat of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs” but rather to simply “remove the threat”—nuclear or conventional. This strategic objective better explains the rationale for Seoul's decision to respond to “disturbances in the policy environment external to the state” in the current crisis. Seoul responded not to the threat of the North Korean nuclear and missile program but rather to the escalating threat of conflict implied in President Trump's “fire and fury” rhetoric in late 2017 and early 2018. Seoul's core strategic objective was stability and long-term threat reduction.

Long-term threat reduction implies two paths—the removal of the current North Korean administration or confidence building to enable the current North Korean administration to reform and change the way it perceives South Korea. This presents a major challenge in the context of an international commission—it would be incumbent upon Seoul to convince potential partners, including the United States, that this strategic objective subsumes the threat of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

During the Kim administration (1997–2002), Roh administration (2003–2008), and most recently under the Moon administration (2017–present), South Korea sought to secure US and Chinese support for reconciliation efforts. Although they did not overtly block or oppose, neither major power openly and wholeheartedly supported South Korea's efforts. Engaging other actors, including other middle powers, multinational corporations, NGOs, and social movements, and allowing them to buy into the initiative, would substantially boost South Korea's persuasive capacity. Rather than South Korean diplomats pushing the initiative alone on the international stage, they would have active support. Most importantly, joining together with another middle power, such as Canada, Australia, or Sweden or even two other middle powers, would increase South Korea's institutional capacity and expand its global influence. South Korea currently solely depends upon its own Ministry of Foreign Affairs to persuade international actors to support its initiatives. Adding the capacity of another well-resourced, highly skilled foreign service would substantially enhance South Korea's negotiating leverage to secure international support.

3.4 Distinction

An international commission must secure adequate attention from media, academia, NGOs, and other interested groups—including potential partners (Wiseman, 2005, pp. 63–64). Accordingly, the international commission must be seen as distinct from previous attempts and current alternative approaches. Since the late 1990s, bilateral (United States–Democratic People's Republic of Korea [DPRK]), quadrilateral (DPRK, Republic of Korea, China, and United States), and six-party talks (DPRK, Republic of Korea, China, United States, Russia, and Japan) focused on nuclear/missile issues and/or threat reduction with initiation and maintenance heavily influenced by crisis diplomacy. Media, academia, NGOs, and other interested groups—including potential partners, inevitably view efforts to address Korean Peninsula issues as repetitive, discredited, and remote.

To ensure adequate media and academic attention, the international commission must first attract attention as a definitive and compelling diplomatic initiative. It must engage media professionals and academics to secure support. The commission must hold influence with individual commissioners having appropriate levels of seniority and an appropriate level of funding to support a strong public diplomacy campaign.

To secure support from NGOs and other interested groups—including potential partners, the international commission must become accepted as part of each group's public policy agenda. To do this, the final report must be definitive and compelling. The final report would be seen as a document that is definitively different from all previous attempts to address the challenges of the Korean Peninsula. The report would also need durability.

3.5 Durability

Both Edward Luck (2000) and Geoffrey Wiseman (2005, p. 65) argue that an international commission “must be able to sustain a shelf life (so that principal concepts and recommendations remain part of the international dialogue on these issues for at least five years).” As argued below, in the context of the Korean Peninsula, an even longer-term shelf life may be required.

Middle powers, such as South Korea, balance during periods of low security tension and bandwagon during high security tension. Accordingly, the international environment and relations with North Korea must be in and continue to be in a period of low security tension for an international commission to secure support and acceptance. Security tension is a particularly significant determinant of foreign policy behaviour on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea is a treaty ally and through the Combined Forces Command is highly integrated into US operational plans for the defence of South Korea. Accordingly, South Korea's foreign policy behaviour during periods of high security tension demonstrates a high degree of path dependence.

Despite incredible North Korean provocations, including armed infiltrations, assassination attempts, artillery exchanges, and naval skirmishes, the same path was ultimately trodden—firm resolve, restraint, and close coordination with the United States. Yet, South Korea, as democratic, high-income state also routinely seeks to reduce tensions through reconciliation and confidence building with North Korea. Accordingly, South Korea's foreign policy swings between periods of high security tension, marked by firm resolve, restraint, and close coordination with the United States; and periods of low security tension, marked by relatively independent reconciliation and confidence building. An international commission could potentially provide the momentum to disrupt South Korea's path dependence.

Finally, an international commission could provide the means to overcome domestic opposition in South Korea. As noted, there is a high degree of policy discontinuity between administrations in South Korea. In the drafting of a definitive final report, an administration would effectively create a steering influence that could guide policy for as long as 20–30 years, in much the same way as previous international commission reports on sustainable development, common security, global governance, and sovereignty.


The failure to demonstrate novelty, promise, persuasion, distinction, or durability would reduce the effectiveness and even viability of an international commission. Failures in diplomatic planning and processes, and even international events, could further present risks of the international commission being compromised by domestic political and/or international strategic interests, as what occurred with the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, its final report The Responsibility to Protect, and the 2003 Iraq Conflict (Moses, Bahador, & Wright, 2011, pp. 349–350).

Crisis diplomacy has proven successful on multiple occasions to prevent conflict and secure short-term stability. However, it also falls into a predictable pattern. With limited objectives, crisis diplomacy cannot solve the entrenched security issues on the Korean Peninsula. As administrations change, and gaps between promises and implementation widen, crisis diplomacy—even at the level of leadership summits—is not enough. Success in the years ahead will require more innovative and creative middle power diplomacy. As demonstrated, an international commission on Korean Peninsula security is a challenging, yet promising, place to start. An international commission would underpin principles and values reflective of contemporary South Korea as a liberal–democratic, market-based economy, with preferences for a multilateral, rules-based international order. It would allow South Korea to maximize its diplomatic advantage as a capable, global, and innovative middle power. Most importantly, an international commission on the Korean Peninsula would in the current context be timed perfectly.

A change of government is possible in two (Trump), three (Moon), or six (second term Trump) years. There is currently adequate time under the current Moon administration to launch an international commission. The Korean Peninsula is currently in a period of low security tension—an ideal time to launch an international commission on the Korean Peninsula. The unique conditions of a South Korean progressive administration, a concerned and active China, and a threatening and unpredictable US have increased key actor willingness to lower security tension. However, these fortuitous conditions are unlikely to last. A change of administration in Seoul, or a more focused United States could retard or undo the progress achieved. The window of opportunity will not last.

Globally, the Korean Peninsula is currently recognized as an important and still urgent issue that requires immediate attention. The international diplomatic agenda is not too full, and the Korean Peninsula is seen as having no viable alternatives beyond summit meetings. Essentially, the timing for a broad-ranging international commission has never been more ripe. For the Korean Peninsula, it is the perfect time to “pick the diplomatic fruit.”

An international commission would allow South Korea to gain domestic and international stakeholder acceptance, secure space on the global agenda, influence and persuade through coalition building, secure major power support, and ultimately, make a final report durable enough to outlast international and domestic opposition and serve as a guiding document for future efforts to secure peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. Although, ultimately, as noted by Gareth Evans: “Commissions and commissioners may sketch the road ahead … but it is for states and intergovernmental organizations and their leaders to travel it” (Evans, 2005).


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"While the diplomatic fruit is ripe: An international commission on the Korean Peninsula", Asia and the Pacific Policy Studies, 7(1) 2020.