Neither Repeats nor Rhymes: The Limits of “Korean War” Parallels in Ukraine 

By | February 12, 2023 | No Comments

Complementing fashionable analogies between the reunification of Germany and the prospective reunification of the two Koreas is a rise in analytical parallels between the division of Korea and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War. This line of thinking is hardly limited to eager analysts who wish to link two of the hottest topics in international security together, but has seeped into the Ukrainian policy world as well. Yet just as there are obvious limits to supposed similarities between German reunification and the potential reunification of the Korean Peninsula, so must one be careful of assuming the bloodshed in Ukraine can end as it did (for the most part) in Korea on July 27, 1953.

Writing for The Moscow Times (now blocked in Russia) in response to recent comments from a former adviser to Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainian scholar Ruslan Bortnik argues that the fundamentally different natures of the Korean War and the Russia-Ukraine War, despite their commonality in being part of larger great power conflicts, means that a “divided country” scenario for Ukraine is unlikely.


Is a variant of the “two Koreas” possible in Ukraine?[1]

Ruslan Bortnik, The Moscow Times


A prediction from former presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovich has sparked fierce discussions in Ukraine – and even in Russia, too. Arestovich believes that Ukraine could lose part of the Donbas, but could break through Russia’s southern front. Arestovich’s “proposal” could be a way to gauge public opinion. 

Arestovich spoke live on the YouTube channel “Alpha and Omega”, discussing a report from the American think tank the RAND Corporation. RAND is a top research institution that works for the US government, specifically the US Department of Defense. The report argues that there is a (high) risk of a protracted war in Ukraine, and proposes that Washington could help urge the warring parties to the negotiating table, bringing an end to the conflict within view. 

The Americans and the West understand well where this is all going” said Oleksiy Arestovich:

In my opinion, they’re talking about an exchange. We lose some of Donetsk and Luhansk, because we’re tired of holding 200 thousand Russians at bay. Of course, things have to go this way – we get it! That’s the issue – to what extent we hope that we will push through at a minimum. The blood of our troops is a heavy price to pay. Well, we will likely break through the southern front (Zaporizhzhia and Kherson – R.B.), and achieve a major victory. Our hope, and that of the Americans, is that this exchange will be in our favor, and that we will negotiate from a position of strength. The Americans are always saying ‘We must provide Ukraine with an optimal negotiating position’. This must be guaranteed through strength! Yet the word “negotiations” is heard coming from the West. Because everybody understands that Ukraine doesn’t have the resources, and the West will spend years making them so that we can beat Russia by force” Arestovich concluded. 


Not even two, but three Koreas 

It sounds as if it would be logical – except we’ve already had this “Korean” situation for eight years – in the Donbas. Before Russia launched its aggressive campaign, Ukraine’s territory was divided into three parts: one part under the country’s legal government, the other being Russian-annexed Crimea, and the third being the separatist areas of the Donbas.  

Most likely, people in Russia were thinking about a “Korean” situation back then – even now, the idea of a so-called “Novorossiya” has not been forgotten. 

Oleksiy Arestovich is, in essence, proposing the same thing, under the pleasant-sounding name “Korean scenario” for the formal division of Ukraine. He is first and foremost using his fame among the masses – both in Ukraine and in Russia – to test the public’s reaction to this “Korean idea”. 

What is he really talking about? He’s saying that full victory in the war against Russia will be difficult to achieve, and impossible in a short amount of time; that there will be no serious talk of the liberation of Ukraine under the status quo prior to 2014, and that the West already wants negotiations.

It is possible to understand Arestovich as presenting variations of possible ways Russia’s situation could develop, underlining that this is even the West’s position – that it’s time to stop, for the war is exacting a heavy price on people the world over.


What does the president’s office have to do with it?

Why should we consider what Arestovich has to say? His voluntary resignation seems to have been somewhat for dramatic effect, especially compared with the massive personnel shifts that started immediately after Arestovich was pushed out on his own accord. What did he do in the office of the president, as an adviser? Someone in this role isn’t responsible for making decisions, as this role is more about making information about what is being discussed in the president’s office and what assessments are being made available to the public. 

Even after resigning, Arestovich continued doing exactly what he had been doing before his resignation. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to assume that his position outside of official power gives him more freedom of expression, and that he can proffer unpopular ideas for the public to consider that would never have come directly from the president’s office. 

Seeing as there has not been any strong reaction to Arestovich’s words – even nearly a week after the fact – one could cautiously assume that at least some members of Zelensky’s cabinet (amid the turmoil in personnel shifts, no less) consider a “Korean scenario” to be possible. 


Unsigned document

Looking at history, what is a “Korean scenario”, anyway? We need to go back 70 years – or what will have been 70 years by this coming July.

During World War II, the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese occupation. After Japan’s surrender, two occupation zones emerged on the peninsula – one American and one Soviet, with the border of them running (to this day) along the 38th parallel. Relations between the US and the USSR quickly soured, and 75 years ago two states came into being – North Korea and South Korea. Neither one recognizes the other, and each one considers itself to be the only legitimate government on the entire Korean Peninsula.

In 1950, North Korean troops invaded South Korea – and in response, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution to send military forces to the peninsula to halt the aggression. The US provided the bulk of troops. At first, UN forces sustained defeats, but then occupied most of North Korea, only for the Chinese army to intervene – and after three years of fruitless bloodshed, an armistice was signed. From the UN side, signatures included US general Billy Harrison (a hero of the Second World War) and Mark Clark. South Korea’s representative, General Choe Deok-sin, refused to sign the agreement and was only present at the ceremony, which can be considered a sign that South Korea did not agree with the truce at that time; from the North Korean side, signatures included those of army general Nam Il, Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung and Chinese general (later marshal, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission and minister of defense) Peng Dehuai. 

In one graveyard
Nam Il was born Yakov Petrovich in 1915. In the 1930’s, Soviet authorities deported his family from their native land in the Russian Far East to Kazakhstan, as happened to many ethnic Korean families. Nevertheless, Yakov Nam pursued a military career: he participated in the Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Berlin, and held the rank of captain at the end of the war, with the position of deputy chief of staff to his regiment’s commander. After the war he worked as a teacher at a school in Qarshi, but in 1948 Kim Il Sung needed troops. So, Yakov Nam became Nam Il, and went into the service of the DPRK. He worked ambitiously in the North Korean army, and was head of the delegation that participated in armistice talks, later becoming North Korea’s foreign minister. Nam Il avoided the fate of most Soviet Koreans who ended up in the service of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung; nevertheless, he died in a car accident in 1976. His son was told not to get involved in this case.

Choe Deok-sin became foreign minister – of South Korea. Later he became ambassador to West Germany, where he ended up being opposed to his country’s military government, and defected to North Korea. He is the most senior-level defector in the history of both countries. Choe became one of the country’s religious leaders – the head of the central committee of the Cheongdo religious movement, a local religion meaning “The Celestial Way”.

Both Nam and Choe are interred in North Korea’s main cemetery, the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery.

That’s an incredible fate for the people who participated in the talks, is it not? 

Just imagine: Joe Biden, Ursula von der Leyen and Rishi Sunak along with Jens Stoltenberg on one side, and on the other side, Sergei Shoigu and Putin? And all in Minsk? It sounds ridiculous. 

I should mention, by the way, that the division and far from peaceful relations make for a volatile situation, as the recent incident with the drones once again underscores. 

A “Korean scenario” means two states between one people. Although there were once an East and West Germany and a North and South Vietnam – the latter until the victory of the Communist North in the civil war – in the strictest sense, there are no other cases of this today except for in Korea. A less relevant example is the current situation in Moldova with the semi-autonomous Transnistria – although the share of Moldovans living in the latter makes the example less pertinent. 

In every case, we’re talking about temporary division: the parties still do not have sufficient forces to defeat the other side, and no political will to negotiate. It’s a stalemate, but a stable one, where people don’t die, buildings don’t come crashing down, and life is relatively normal. 


Can Ukraine be divided?

A Korean situation could take shape, unfortunately, but only under circumstances where Western support is limited both qualitatively and quantitatively, and slow to arrive. And the moment is approaching, when Ukrainian elites will say: we fought the good fight, we have gained the respect of the world, we did more than anyone at any time could have imagined, but we don’t have enough resources to achieve victory in this war, so we must, for the same of our people’s future, look for ways to end this war. 

I’m willing to bet that hostilities will end without any ceremony marking the signing of an agreement, as in Korea, more so, as I mentioned above, because such an agreement is dubious without South Korea’s signature. So, the fighting stops, and negotiations take place through intermediaries, as in the case of the grain deal, or the deal to exchange Viktor Medvedchuk for members of the Azov Battalion. The economic, political and military conditions under which occupation zones operate and demilitarized zones etc. become the subject of discussion. 

Another reason why a “Korean scenario” could come to fruition is a change of government in Ukraine. Like in Georgia: the political party that wins is the one that says “Yes, Russia is undoubtedly an enemy, aggressor and occupier, but we don’t have the strength to fight, so let’s stop and wait for a more convenient time to take back our occupied territory.”

However, I feel that a “Korean scenario” is highly unlikely. Despite talking once again about “negotiations”, Russia is trying to absorb territory, and to create not a puppet state, but a “state”, that being Novorossiya. Yes, West Germany and South Korea were (and are) part of the US sphere of influence, just as East Germany was part of the USSR’s sphere of influence, and how the DPRK is in China’s sphere. Yet Russia has already attached itself to our territory and brought it under its constitutional authority, which is an entirely different story. 

The only thing I see coming from the current situation: division between the warring parties based on battle lines – not because one of the warring parties wants it, but because of a depletion of resources.

In Korea, that took three years.


Original article by Ruslan Bortnik, Ukrainian Institute of Politics. Translated by Anthony V. Rinna


[1] Source: “Is a variant of the ‘two Koreas’ possible in Ukraine? [Возможен ли вариант «двух Корей» на территории Украины]”, The Moscow Times, February 8, 2023,



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