Dealing with the Devil: A Progressive Korean View on Ending the War in Ukraine

By | June 08, 2022 | No Comments

The idea of allowing an entity divided by outside forces to remain so for a supposed greater good seems anathema to the pro-unification inclinations of the Korean progressive leftist. Yet this is exactly the type of suggestion that appeared in an editorial in the Hankyoreh, a leading progressive publication in South Korea. Perhaps the suggestion reveals an indifference to another country’s violent division. Or perhaps it reflects a shift in attitudes constituting a fading-away of some of the more idealistic inclinations of the ROK progressives’ views on foreign affairs. 

Indeed, in line with the realist thinking the editorial’s author cites, certain quarters of South Korea’s progressive influencers may view allowing the Russian Federation at least a partial victory in Ukraine as a chance for the ROK to maintain the Kremlin’s support for inter-Korean reconciliation (something that, as farfetched as it may seem at any point in time, will certainly be more implausible if Moscow ends up shoring up ties with Pyongyang so that the latter becomes something of a strategic asset to the former). 

Yet if leaving Ukraine divided for the sake of placating Russia is in the pursuit of a “greater good” – namely avoiding the prospects of a nuclear war – it will be worth watching how this line of logic develops among the Korean left in terms of their views of the Korean Peninsula’s own division in the coming years.


“Sometimes you have to make a ‘deal with the Devil’”, Hankyoreh, June 1, 2022.[1]

If friends of Ukraine were to read this article, they might well assail me with barbed accusations of being a “dirty hypocrite”.

As you all know, since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, humanity has been plunged into a “complex dilemma” that is hard to describe.

There is no question that Putin’s “reckless” attempt to re-shape the European order by military force amounts to a full-frontal assault on the post-WWII order that humanity has been building up.

Putin’s plan, which was to take Kyiv in a matter of days and “decapitate” Volodymir Zelensky’s government amidst a pathetic struggle on the part of the Ukrainian people, went down the drain in the early phase of the war.

It’s impossible to forget Zelensky and his senior leadership on the streets of Kyiv on the second night of the war, reassuring the Ukrainian people that “We are here, preserving our independence and our nation”. 

Since then, the Ukrainians have been fiercely resisting, aided by American and European military support. Yet since April, as the fighting has moved away from Kyiv toward the Donbas region in the east, the Russians have demonstrated an increasingly obvious superiority. On May 20, Russia’s defense ministry announced the “complete capture” of the strategically-vital city of Mariupol, and have taken over 95% of Luhansk oblast[2] in the east.

Even though I want Ukraine to drive back the Russians given their “unjust attack”, my feelings are mixed given how Putin has, since the outset of the war, repeatedly and in a subtle yet provocative manner threatened the use of nuclear weapons. Since February 27th, the fourth day of the war, after issuing an order “raising nuclear forces’ readiness level”, Russian officials have stated that if Russia faces an “existential threat”, they will entertain the possibility of using nuclear weapons. It’s impossible to know exactly what they mean by an “existential threat”. However, one would think this could mean Russia sustaining a “massive failure” in the war, to the point where it is unable to restore its national dignity and Vladimir Putin is placed in a politically precarious position. It is as if with every small victory on the battlefield for Zelensky, the world inches closer toward nuclear war. How else can such a tricky situation be described as anything other than a “complex dilemma”?

After a New York Times editorial from May 19 argued that the war was entering “a new and complicated phase” and that it was “it is still not in America’s best interest to plunge into an all-out war with Russia,” the so-called “Kissinger-Soros debate” erupted. The day after former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger suggested at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland that Ukraine should give up the eastern parts of the country and cede them to Russia to avoid a larger crisis, George Soros stated that “The best way to save civilization is to defeat Vladimir Putin as quickly as possible.” Europe’s major powers France, Germany and Italy have sided with the realist Kissinger, while countries most directly exposed to Russian military threats such as Poland and the Baltic states take Soros’ side, with the debate continuing to divide Europe.

In order to soothe my nerves, I cracked open Takeshi Oki’s “Russo-German War”. The Russo-German War can be summarized as a war that started in June 1941 and went on for four years, during which one group of humans attempted to annihilate another group of humans, but suffered a “harsh reversal” followed by destruction. The most important feature of this war is the fact that two ideologies, “Nazism” (in Germany) and “Bolshevism” (in the USSR), refused to coexist on the world stage, thus making it a war in which one side sought to eliminate the other. Even after Hitler’s hopes for a decisive victory at Stalingrad and Kursk faded away, the war didn’t end through negotiation. There is no accounting for the suffering that humanity, especially womankind, had to bear. We too must sometimes make a deal with the Devil.

Looking at the current situation in a detached manner, it seems impossible for Ukraine to take back the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in March 2014, as well as regain control of the conflict-ridden Luhansk and Donetsk regions. And if Ukraine miraculously ended up recovering these areas, a “nuclear war” could still break out in Europe. To say this is as scandalous as suggesting that Korea yield the Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo)[3] to Japan in the event of their occupation; it is time to resume the peace talks in Istanbul, which were suspended in late March.


Original article by Gil Yun-hyung, international affairs editor, Hankyoreh. Translated by Anthony V. Rinna. Translation edited by Christopher Green.

[1] Source: “Sometimes you have to make a ‘deal with the Devil’” [때로, ‘악마’와도해야 한다], Hankyoreh, June 1, 2022 (updated June 2, 2022)

[2] Translator’s note 1: The original text rendered this word as “주 (ju)” meaning “state” or “province”, yet in the translation it has been rendered as “oblast” to reflect the word’s common use in English-language discourse when applied to Russian- or Ukrainian-speaking subdivisions.

[3] Translator’s note 2: It is this author’s policy to use the term “Liancourt Rocks” since this is the official place name in English. However, “Dokdo” has been included to maintain a degree of faithfulness to the original text.





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