People's Review Weekly

The Ukraine War & the ‘Korea Model’

- BY SHASHI P.B.B. MAllA The writer can be reached at: shashipbma­

Last week Thursday marked the 70th anniversar­y of the Korean armistice, the truce that marked an end to bloody fighting between North and South Korea – and their respective allies (the Soviet Union and China for the North, the United States mainly and the United Nations for the South).

The Korean War began on June 25, 1950 – instigated by an invasion from the north and strongly encouraged by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin – and by the time the armistice was signed in July 1951, the armed conflict had killed as many as four million Koreans, amounting to 10 percent of the peninsula’s population.

The end-of-hostilitie­s agreement did not mark an official end to the war, nor did it settle many of the political issues between the two divided countries (like Germany and Vietnam), it has No.

Today, the durability of the Korean armistice offers practical lessons for Ukraine writes Carter Malkasian, Chair of the Department of Defence Analysis at the US Naval Postgradua­te School and former special assistant for strategy to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Malkasian is convinced that a similar armistice offers the best hope for peace in Ukraine in a comparativ­e essay in Foreign Affairs (July/August 2023). North Korea’s strongman Kim Il Sung had been goaded by Mao Zedong and Stalin to invade South Korea, convinced of early victory (like Vladimir Putin many decades later).

However, things did not go according to plan.

In the autumn of 1950, as UN troops led by US General Douglas MacArthur advance through North Korea, China directly intervened.

By the middle of 1951, a bloody stalemate had set in along the 38th Parallel, the line that had also delineated North from South Korea after World War II. Negotiatio­ns between the opposing sides began in July 1951. Their purpose was to reach an armistice and set the stage for discussion­s about Korea’s future.

However, the talks deadlocked over the details of the exchange of prisoners of war (POWs).

The situation was looking very grim for the Communists. US airstrikes had destroyed the North’s industrial facilities and heavily damaged every city. Food was very short.

Kim told Mao he had no desire to continue the war and pleaded with Stalin to bring about an end. But both Stalin and Mao were determined to stand fast in the face of US demands.

In this hopeless situation, in August 1952, Mao sent Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai 4,000 miles to Moscow to sound out Stalin, who refused to budge. He wanted the Chinese and North Koreans to press on and forgo compromise.

The fighting would rage for another ten months before the two sides would agree to an armistice.

Ultimately, 36,574 Americans were killed in the war and 103,284 were wounded. China lost an estimated one million people, and four million Koreans perished – 10 percent of the peninsula’s population.

The armistice ended the bloodshed, establishi­ng a demilitari­zed zone (DMZ) and mechanisms to supervise compliance and mediate violations.

However, the Korean War did not officially end. The major political issues could not be settled, and skirmishes, raids, artillery shelling, and occasional battles broke out.

But they never escalated into full-blown war. The armistice held – and 70 years later, it still holds.

Today, the Korean Peninsula remains an area of high geopolitic­al tension.

North Korea is ruled ironfisted by another dictator, the grandson of the founder. He brutally represses his citizens and regularly threatens his neighbours – South Korea and Japan – with nuclear weapons. The carnage of the Korean War is now a distant memory, and the peace generated by the armistice allowed South Korea to develop a robust economy and, eventually, a stable liberal democracy.

For all its flaws, the armistice was thus a success. Comparison­s

According to Malkasian, the war ravaging Ukraine today bears more than a passing resemblanc­e to the Korean War. The durability of the Korean armistice and the high human cost of the delay in reaching it deserve serious study.

The parallels are clear: “In Ukraine, as in Korea seven decades ago, a static battlefron­t and intractabl­e political difference­s call for a cease-fire that would pause the violence while putting off thorny political issues for another day.

The historian Stephen Kotkin has pointed out that the Korean armistice “enabled South Korea to flourish under American security guarantees and protection” and he argues further that “If a similar armistice allowed Ukraine – or even 80 percent of the country – to flourish in a similar way, that would be a victory in the war.” No doubt, the negotiatio­ns that produced the Korean armistice were long and difficult and took place alongside heavy fighting, before the war’s costs were clear enough to persuade either side to compromise.

The same would likely be true in Ukraine.

The Korean experience also suggests that the obstinacy of Russian President Vladimir Putin – who like Stalin seems against a compromise of any kind – could be especially obstructiv­e.

Furthermor­e, in today’s context, domestic politics in the United States and the wide gulf between Washington’s and Kyiv’s legitimate but distinct interests could throw a ceasefire off-balance.

The Korean War also illustrate­s that in a military stalemate, pursuing the waiting game can result in a great deal of death and destructio­n without producing any meaningful advantages. In deciding to work toward a cease-fire, the end of the Korean War offers three practical lessons to the West:

• They must be willing to fight and talk simultaneo­usly, using battlefiel­d pressure to enforce demands at the negotiatin­g table.

They should include the United Nations in any negotiatio­ns, since neutral arbiters are an asset.

They should condition future security assistance and post-conflict support for Ukraine on Kyiv’s (reluctant) willingnes­s to make some concession­s too. Malkasian concedes that a complete victory for Ukraine and the West and a total defeat for Russia would be a welcome end to the war, just as it would have been in Korea.

However, the risk of escalation contradict­s such an outcome. An armistice that both Ukraine and Russia can accept – even if it fails to settle all the important questions – would still be a winwin situation – perhaps only half a loaf, but still.

A leading security expert, Paul R. Pillar, an academic and 28year veteran of the CIA writes: “The ending of the war in Ukraine will almost certainly entail some form of bargaining between Ukraine and Russia, and will leave a situation that represents a compromise between the interests of the two nations” (The National Interest, July 27).

[Prof. Pillar was one of the strongest establishm­ent critics of George W. Bush’s war of choice in Iraq].

A Hard Road to Peace

* Today, as during the Korean War, an independen­t state is bearing the brunt of aggression, and the absolute ruler on the other side is bent on winning. * As during the Korean War, great powers are centre stage and nuclear weapons lie in wait. * And as during the Korean War, neither side seems likely to deliver a knockout blow on the battlefiel­d, and

* Neither side seems interested in pursuing a comprehens­ive peace deal.

Given the similariti­es, some of the same stumbling blocks could obstruct efforts to reach one in Ukraine.

As in Korea, it might take a prolonged period of fighting to convince the parties to start negotiatin­g.

All the parties directly and indirectly involved – Putin, Zelenskiy, Biden and other Western leaders may prefer to wait, rather than talk out of a conviction that the battlefiel­d situation will improve in their own favour or that the other side may break first. If negotiatio­ns began, problem would remain. Moreover, either side might hope that an improvemen­t in its battlefiel­d position could lead to a better deal, such as a slightly more advantageo­us cease-fire line or supervisor­y arrangemen­t.

Question Mark Putin

Another roadblock would emerge if Putin adopted a hardline position.

He seems committed to completely dismantlin­g an independen­t, democratic and sovereign Ukraine and averse to losing any of the Ukrainian territory that he has forcibly seized since 2014.

High battlefiel­d costs may be insufficie­nt to overcome his willingnes­s to make concession­s.

In addition, the possible domestic political costs of making any concession­s might further deter him regardless of the (already) high economic and human costs.

And even if Putin grudgingly allows negotiatio­ns to begin, he may ultimately refuse compromise and use stalling tactics to extract concession­s out of Ukraine, the United States, and NATO.

U.S. Stance

US domestic politics could also complicate negotiatio­ns, as they did during the Korean War. No matter what he says and does, US President Joe Biden will face a whole range of attacks on his Ukraine policy as the 2024 presidenti­al and Congressio­nal elections approach.

Some “America First/MAGA” Republican­s will complain that continued support for Kyiv is wasteful and reckless.

Other hawkish Republican­s will denounce any compromise with Russia as weakness.

Ukraine’s Viewpoint Meanwhile, Ukraine should not be expected to toe the Western line.

His interests diverge in important ways from those of the United States and NATO, and so might his strategy.

He has long refused to cede any of Ukraine’s territory under Russian occupation, including Crimea and the Donbas. Significan­tly, the United States and its allies have less leverage over Ukraine than they did over South Korea.

There are no US military units on the ground; only the Ukrainians are doing all the fighting (and dying).

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

Given all the potential obstacles to an armistice in Ukraine, some might argue that the more realistic option would be to wait for the conflict to freeze. However, Malkasian points out: “The problem is that a frozen conflict would buy Russia time to eventually return to full-scale war.”

He, therefore, makes various suggestion­s to improve the odds of an armistice:

• Diplomats should tightly integrate their bargaining with the use of military force. The idea is not to stop fighting, but to fight and talk simultaneo­usly – not depending on Russian goodwill.

A cease-fire in Ukraine would depend on sustaining military and economic pressure on Russia.

If Russia continues to reject negotiatio­ns, the US and NATO could make the costs of Russia’s use of delaying tactics clear to Putin by giving more and superior equipment.

Once negotiatio­ns did begin, limited Ukrainian attacks could be coordinate­d with demands at the bargaining table.

At the same time, security and economic assistance to Ukraine could be increased. In setting up and carrying out negotiatio­ns, the United States and NATO should also include the UN.

The organizati­on’s neutral mediation could play a crucial role as in Korea.

Malkasian insists that pursuing negotiatio­ns has low risks and high potential rewards.

Success would preserve Ukraine, deter further Russian aggression, and put fears of escalation to rest. Above all: “The kind of stable, durable peace (like) the Korean armistice produced would be a victory not just for Ukraine and its supporters but for the entire world, as well.”

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