Can the Korean armistice of 1953 become a model for conflict settlement in Ukraine?

Konstantin K. Khudoley

28th January 2023


Courtesy: European Parliamentary Research Service

The hostilities in Ukraine and the acute phase of the Russia-West confrontation have been going on for almost a year. They are more explicitly turning into a “war of attrition.” Nevertheless, from time to time, various ideas appear in the public space about possible ways to cease fire and resolve the conflict. In particular, voices are saying that Russia and Ukraine could agree on an armistice without signing a peace treaty and settling all other disputes, as was the case on the Korean Peninsula in 1953. Indeed, both conflicts are apparently very similar and can be defined as “proxy wars.” North Korea and China fought while having the Soviet Union behind them. Ukraine is backed by the United States, NATO, the European Union, and several other countries. However, this is where the similarities end and the major differences begin.

First of all, the goals, pursued by the opposing sides in both conflicts are qualitatively different. By attacking the South, North Korea sought to establish communist power across the country. When the US troops and their allies took Pyongyang, Seoul already began to plan the unification under their rule. Neither the USSR nor the USA set as their goal the revision of the system of international relations, which they (together with Great Britain) agreed upon at the conferences in Yalta and Potsdam (1945) and which suited both superpowers quite well. It was only a question of pushing back the other superpower in some border areas between their spheres of influence (Korea, West Berlin, Northern Iran, and some others), but not more than that. Now the goals of the conflicting parties are much more ambitious. In recent years, the opinion has become more assertive in Russia’s ruling circles that the era of domination of the “historical West” is ending, and this process must be accelerated. Moscow seeks not only to include Ukraine in its sphere of influence but also to demonstrate to everyone the weakness of the United States. The second major defeat, even more serious than in Afghanistan (2021), should undermine the authority of the United States in the world and lead to the establishment of new rules in the international arena. Western policy has evolved during the Ukrainian conflict. While initially, it was only about the defense of Ukraine, then the United States claimed the need to protect the existing world order and achieve such a weakening of Russia that would make impossible any similar actions against its other neighbors in the future. Moreover, now some prominent Western politicians have put forward more stringent demands — the payment of reparations by Russia and the creation of an international tribunal for those responsible for starting the war. Thus, in the current conflict, unlike the Korean War, the issue of revising or preserving the modern world order and causing damage to the main actors — Russia and the United States — plays an important role in the goals of the conflicting parties.

Courtesy: U.S. Department of Defense/Flickr

The stakes made in both conflicts are also very different. The Korean War was of utmost importance for the Koreans themselves since it was a question of their country’s fate and, to a certain extent, that of China. For Moscow and Washington the Korean War was an important event but not a priority. In general, they did not rule out the possibility of their failure. The United States hesitated to enter the war when, after the outbreak of hostilities, South Korean troops could offer no effective resistance. Whereas in October 1950, when the Americans took Pyongyang, the Soviet leadership was ready to agree with the defeat of the DPRK. The latter did not happen only because of the intervention of China. The ruling circles of neither the USSR nor the USA saw serious threats to themselves in the case of the defeat of any Korean state. Now the situation is different. Russia’s victory in Ukraine will seriously undermine the authority of the United States and the West in general and vice versa – if Russia does not achieve its stated goals, then its position in the world will seriously weaken, and internal problems may worsen. In any case, qualitative changes and a completely new alignment of forces on the world stage are quite likely.

Although a coalition of 16 states acted on the side of the South under the UN flag, the Korean War still was a local conflict, since military actions were conducted only on the territory of the Korean Peninsula. This conflict undoubtedly contributed to the growth of tension and suspicion in relations between the Soviet bloc and the West in general, yet, it did not have any noticeable impact on the world economy. Although some politicians and experts talk about a “new world war,” from our point of view, at this stage, the conflict in Ukraine is also local – military actions take place in a limited area. Most of Asian, African and Latin American states refrain from any form of participation in it. However, it has already had a noticeable negative impact on the global economy, exacerbated energy and food problems, led to a reorientation of transport routes, a reduction (and sometimes complete cessation) of interaction on climate change, coronavirus, scientific, cultural and educational ties, etc. In addition, the probability of the war theater’s expansion is now much higher than during the Korean War. Therefore, the impact of the events in Ukraine on global development is already serious.

Unlike the Korean War, where the main confrontation happened in the military and political spheres, the current conflict is also very intense in the economic sphere. We have a real “war of attrition.” The West imposed sanctions of unprecedented scale on Russia. The Russian economy, despite the losses, has endured this blow so far, yet, in the future, the situation will worsen. Particularly dangerous is the possible reduction in revenues from oil and gas exports in the short term and, in the medium term, the supply cuts of equipment and new technologies. And certainly, it must be taken into account that the economic potential of the West significantly surpasses the Russian one. Sanctions and Russian countermeasures have also hurt the economy of the West, especially the European Union. Nevertheless, according to some prominent politicians, the West does not intend to abandon the “war of attrition” even in case of cessation of hostilities in Ukraine. Yet again, this obviously reduces the chances of achieving an armistice on the Korean model of 1953.

The most difficult subjects in the negotiations for an armistice in Korea were the return of war prisoners and the establishment of the demarcation line. Now the issue of war prisoners is unlikely to create serious difficulties – their exchange is constantly going on mediated by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other countries. But there are no possibilities for a rapprochement of positions on territorial issues yet in sight. In Korea, the armistice line passed close to the one from which hostilities began. Stalin insisted on recapturing two islands in the Yellow Sea north of the 38th parallel before the armistice was signed. But after his death, this issue was removed. Now the problem is much more complex. In 2014, Russia declared the incorporation of Crimea, and in October 2022, four more regions – Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporozhye. Although Russian troops have retreated from Kherson, while Zaporozhye and parts of the Donbass have never been controlled by Russia, their incorporation is part of the Russian Constitution. Ukraine, for its part, demands the restoration of the 1991 borders that existed at the time of the USSR’s collapse and the declaration of its independence, in other words, the return of the territories controlled by Russian troops, including Crimea. The West officially supports Kyiv, although certain circles (Henry Kissinger, Elon Musk, and others) offer various compromise proposals. However, all of them are rejected by both Moscow and Kyiv. Most likely, when it comes to serious negotiations, this issue will be one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult.

Another difference is that during the armistice of 1953, no one raised the question of the domestic order of North or South Korea. Russia has repeatedly stated that it seeks from Ukraine not only a friendly foreign policy but also many changes in its domestic policy (the status of the Russian language and the Moscow Patriarchate after the split of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, etc.). Ukraine’s negative response to this is beyond doubt.

Finally, one more important factor cannot be ignored. The armistice of 1953 was signed when both sides agreed that the continuation of hostilities would not give them anything and began gradually to reduce their intensity. Now both Russia and Ukraine are announcing offensive plans. At the same time, the future course of events will undoubtedly be influenced by such factors as the upcoming presidential elections. In 2023, Turkey will hold presidential elections (Recep Tayyip Erdogan plays an essential role as an intermediary in negotiations on the exchange of prisoners, the Black Sea Green Initiative, etc.). In 2024, presidential elections will be held in Russia, Ukraine, and the United States. Their results can either reaffirm the policies already pursued by these countries – in this case, the “war of attrition” will continue until one of the parties runs out of resources – or pave the way for the start of negotiations and search for compromise. Therefore, a meaningful quest for peace is unlikely to begin earlier than 2025 unless a major turning point occurs in hostilities. At the same time, for a stable peace settlement, agreements will be required on a broad range of issues (military, security, political, economic, etc.). And since the inertia of the ongoing confrontation is large, it will be an extremely difficult task.

*** The author is a professor at School of International Relations, Saint Petersburg State University (Russia)