The similarities between the war in Ukraine and the war on the Korean Peninsula
G e N Iuvinale
“After a year of brutal fighting, in which thousands of lives have been lost, civilian infrastructure destroyed and incredible damage, the war appears to have reached a stalemate. Neither side will agree to a negotiated settlement. On the battlefield, armies they are fighting for tiny slivers of territory at a terrible price. The threat of nuclear escalation hangs in the air."
Photo: USS Missouri firing her 16 inch guns towards Chong Jin, Korea, 1950. Gettyimeges
This is not the description of the war in Ukraine today; is the description of the situation of the war on the Korean peninsula in 1951. Of course, no two wars are exactly alike. But in the long history of carnage, one war resembles the current bloodbath in Ukraine: the Korean War of 1950-1953, where South Koreans and their allies, led by the United States, fought North Koreans and Chinese, supported by the Soviet Union . There are all kinds of lessons to be learned from this conflict. But more important may be how it turned out, writes Cold War historian Sergei Radchenko in The Times.
In Ukraine, the end of the war seems far away. For Russia, victory would most likely result in the conquest of Ukrainian territory which it claims as its own. Nothing less than the expulsion of Russian troops from the country, including the Crimea, will be enough for Ukraine. Neither side is interested in negotiations and it is difficult to imagine how a peace agreement could be reached.
In Korea, the situation was similar: neither the North Koreans, nor the South Koreans, nor their sponsors were in a hurry to end the war. But the conflict - which claimed up to three million lives and destroyed entire cities - gradually subsided, leading to a ceasefire and a temporary division of the Korean peninsula that proved to be more lasting than anyone could have imagined at the time. moment. Ultimately, stalemate warfare proved preferable to the alternatives.
Stalin unleashed the dogs of war
The decision to start the Korean War was made by one man: Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union. After initially rejecting North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung's calls to invade the South, Stalin changed his mind in January 1950. The reasons were twofold. First, with the impending conclusion of the Sino-Soviet Alliance Treaty, to be signed in Moscow on February 14, 1950, Stalin knew he could count on Chinese participation in the war if needed.
Second, and of potentially greater importance, were the misleading signals from the United States. The main one was the famous statement of January 12, 1950 by Secretary of State Dean Acheson, which excluded Korea from the American "defensive perimeter". Combined with the intercepted information, it was enough to assure Stalin - wrongly, as it turned out - that the United States would not intervene in Korea.
Given the green light for the invasion, North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950, soon capturing Seoul and advancing to an extent that might have resulted in the capture of all of Korea. But a decisive US intervention, under the banner of the United Nations, caused casualties among the North Korean ranks and turned the tide of the war. In late September 1950, General Douglas MacArthur, in charge of the Western war effort, made the decision to enter North Korea with the goal of liberating the northern half of the country.
Watching these developments from afar, Stalin urged the Chinese to join the fight. After some initial hesitation, Mao Zedong, whose Communist victory in China had come the year before, agreed. The Chinese began to cross into North Korea secretly in late October 1950. The war entered a new bloody stage.
Initially, the Chinese "people's volunteers" (as these Chinese troops were called) scored impressive victories, pushing the United Nations forces south of the 38th parallel and recapturing Seoul. But their momentum didn't last. Plagued by logistical difficulties and by American bombing, the offensive stalled in May 1951. But even the Americans failed to make much progress in the following months. Although the two sides fought several battles between 1951 and 1953, the war has virtually stood still.
Two years of war of attrition
By the summer of 1951 it was clear the war was going nowhere, but it took another two years – punctuated by a lethal artillery barrage across the Line of Control and intermittent fighting – before the fighting died down. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people have been killed, and widespread US bombing of North Korean hydroelectric dams has led to complete blackouts in the north.
The ostensible reason for the delay was that many Chinese and North Korean POWs showed no interest in being exchanged, preferring to remain with the enemy. But the real problem was Stalin's reluctance to agree to a ceasefire. “I do not think there is a need to speed up the war in Korea,” he wrote to Mao in June 1951. “A protracted war, firstly, allows Chinese troops to perfect their modern battlefield fighting skills, and secondly , shakes the Truman regime in America and undermines the prestige of the Anglo-American forces".
The death of the Russian dictator allowed for the armistice
The dictator was perfectly happy to let the war go on. After all, the Chinese, Koreans and Americans accounted for the largest number of deaths. It was not until Stalin's death in March 1953 that Soviet leaders reconsidered the whole situation and urged their allies to come to an agreement. The armistice agreement was signed in the small village of Panmunjom on July 27, 1953. It was essentially a ceasefire. There was no peace treaty, no negotiated settlement. Technically, the war is still frozen, unfinished.
Even so, an uncertain peace ensued and, curiously, it held. There are indications that Kim Il Sung considered another invasion of South Korea in the late 1960s, when the United States, faced with defeat in Vietnam, seemed less prepared for another war in Korea. But neither the Chinese nor the Soviets were enthusiastic. The Sino-Soviet alliance had long since collapsed, and in 1969 the former comrades even fought a short war on the disputed border. In the 1970s, North Korea began to fall substantially behind in economic competition with the South. Unification, if it had happened, could have happened only on Seoul's terms.
Seventy years after the Korean armistice, the Kim dynasty still rules the North. The dictatorial regime, now armed with nuclear weapons, is still supported by China and Russia, and in turn helped the Russians in the war in Ukraine by supplying ammunition. Xi Jinping probably doesn't want this war to drag on forever. He would certainly be very happy with a ceasefire.
Indeed, this may be the preferred solution in other areas – certainly in the Global South, which sees nothing to gain from the conflict, but also across some Western capitals. The parties most clearly opposed to the idea are those fighting on the ground: the Russians and the Ukrainians. For Ukraine, which is fighting an invasion force claiming nearly a quarter of its territory, such a stance is understandable.
However, if neither side makes significant gains in the coming months, the conflict could evolve towards a ceasefire. The Ukrainians, while they may not have fully recovered their territories, will have pushed back an aggressive enemy. The Russians, in turn, can disguise their strategic defeat as a tactical victory. The conflict will be frozen, a less than ideal outcome, writes the author.