16.05.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Korean Parallels to the Ukrainian Crisis


Periodically, the audience asks the author what he thinks about the current situation. While the author is not an expert on Ukraine, he nevertheless sees a number of curious parallels between the current developments and the events of Korean history, which he would like to remind readers of.

The first parallel concerns the Korean War, which is very often presented as an allegedly treacherous attack by the North on the peaceful and unprepared South. This interpretation ignores the fact that there was already a “low-intensity war” on the Korean peninsula before June 25, 1950, the scope of which was quite comparable to the trench warfare of the last war or the situation in the Donbass eight years before the events of 2022. In that year and a half, there were three skirmishes a day on the demarcation line between the North and the South. However, this was not an ordinary skirmish, but a situation in which battalions fought with artillery support. That being said, even Western historians such as William Stueck admit that much of these skirmishes were initiated by the South.

Of course, both Pyongyang and Seoul were unhappy with the splitting of the country and were confident that it was “our legitimately elected government” that people supported and “the puppet regime would collapse at the first serious blow”, preparing for a forceful unification.

An analysis of the positions of South Korean forces before the DPRK’s offensive clearly shows that the ROK army was not preparing for a defensive war. For example, Russian military historian Aleksey Isayev points out that almost all North Korean tank losses were “due” to US aircraft, not minefields or casualties incurred in breaching fortified defense lines. Because there were no such fortified lines or mine laying. Seoul was actively preparing for an offensive war, attacking with even more bellicose language than Pyongyang, but the US, well aware of the weakness of the Syngman Rhee regime, would not give it the go-ahead. However, from the outset Syngman Rhee’s plan envisaged turning the war into a “Third World War”, in which the Kuomintang’s China and even Japan were to participate alongside the ROK army in “crushing communism”. As a result of the “redistribution of the world” South Korea was to receive “its” historical territories of the Goguryeo and Balhae states, i.e. Manchuria and part of the Russian Far East.

The second parallel, also relating to the Korean War, concerns information wars and historical memory. The North Korean version of the war, consisting of a counter-offensive in response to a strike from the South, has been branded “lies” and “propaganda”, after which all evidence concerning Seoul’s preparations for war has been declared false and not taken seriously as historical facts.

Meanwhile, first, as it was written above, the war was already going on, and the North Korean invasion simply changed the scale of it. Second, after the capture of Seoul, a very large volume of both seized documents and live witness testimony was accumulated, including that of several Southern government ministers who remained in Seoul after the KPA entered there. All this evidence clearly shows that preparations for an attack on the North were definitely underway. However, amidst other elements of the North Korean narrative that have very little to do with reality, this data is known only to a small number of professionals.

Meanwhile, the unbiased researcher should remember that in war, and especially in civil war, propaganda works on both sides: “rumor bombing” can often create myths that would be difficult to debunk in the absence of hot trails. However, very often politically engaged people are well aware of one side’s propaganda, intelligently dissecting its fakes, but they perceive the propaganda of the other side completely uncritically.

In such a situation, it must be understood that the main purpose of military propaganda is not so much to change the minds of those who waver, or to destroy the world view of those who have already formed it, but rather to strengthen the faith of “their own”. And if the level of dehumanization of the enemy is high enough, the audience will be ready to believe whatever atrocities they commit.

Sometimes the truth comes decades later. Until the early 2000s, the so-called “Korean Katyn” of Daejeon, a mass grave of civilians, including women and children, figured among the descriptions of communist victims. Many of the bodies were found with signs of torture. But when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission under left-wing President Roh Moo-hyun began its work, the young left-wing historians on the Commission concluded that the crime had not been committed by the North Koreans, nor by the ROK Army or the US forces. The “Korean Katyn” was the work of the so-called “youth corps”, of which the Ukrainian volunteer battalions are the most close analogue for Russian audiences. These organizations were formed from young people under 35 as politicized gangs who engaged in crime in their spare time, but were considered “patriotic groups”, which the regime used to terrorize the leftist movement and anti-Syngman protests in general.

It is noteworthy that the founders of the “corps” (Lee Beom-seok, Ahn Sahng-hong and others) had studied in Nazi Germany and made no secret of the fact that they were building their organizations in the image and likeness of the German stormtroopers. Their ideology was also similar to that of the Nazis, but with adjustments for Korean nationalism and the personality cult of Syngman Rhee. During the Korean War, the “youth corps” were responsible for mopping up the occupied territories and, in particular, they are responsible for war crimes in the Sincheon area. These crimes are blamed on the US army by North Korean propaganda, which denies southerners agency. The “corps” structures were disbanded towards the end of the Korean War and soon after, partly because they could only fight civilians; partly because Syngman Rhee began to perceive their leadership as a threat to his power.

The third parallel concerns the specific nationalism of small countries, which can be called “small-power chauvinism”. It is typical of a situation in which a small country in comparison to its neighbors is trying to compensate for its not-so-good present with a made-up past. In this respect, the reasoning of some Ukrainian historians that the history of their people goes back 270,000 years is very reminiscent of their South Korean counterparts that the ancient Korean state of Hwanguk is the foundation of the entire world civilization and that the Sumerians are descendants of the ancient Koreans. The reasoning of Ukrainian culture is no less similar, right down to the claim that “the NKVD shot all the blind Kobzars”, to comparable myths of Korean nationalism.

However, this is a very big topic and could be the subject of a separate article. And so we come to the fourth parallel, which concerns the desire for nuclear weapons and the double standards.

When North Korea’s Kang Sok-ju told his US counterpart James Kelly in 2002 that his country had the right to defend itself with any weapon, including nuclear weapons, the US clearly took the phrase as proof that North Korea had violated the Framework Agreement and was secretly developing nuclear weapons, hence the urgent need for action. This is where the “Korean peninsula nuclear issue” began. The reasoning for the US invasion of Iraq had been similar: the “certainty” that the tyrannical regime in the “rogue country is developing WMDs” and the lack of clear evidence of this only shows that they have everything well hidden and we should launch a pre-emptive strike before enemy bombs fall on the cities of our allies.

Now recall the content of Vladimir Zelenski’s Munich speech about Ukraine possibly acquiring nuclear weapons and add to this such factors as the technological capabilities of Ukraine as a post-Soviet country with an engineering base and nuclear power plants, due to which the author estimates that in a country with such a base it would take months or a few weeks to build nuclear weapons. Add to this the fact that the Ukrainian leadership has earned the status of a “pariah regime”. It fits into the paradigm of realism, where such threats should be taken seriously.

Moreover, the Western and South Korean media are very fond of accusing the DPRK of blackmail, even though it has never made a statement that fits that definition. The Ukrainian leaders, on the other hand, have become openly “famous” for it. A year before the Ukrainian speech, David Arakhamia, chairman of the parliamentary faction Servant of the People, one of the people closest to Zelenski, called the decision by the first Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk “to get rid of nuclear weapons after signing the meaningless Budapest Memorandum” a fatal mistake. “If we were a nuclear power, everyone would talk to us differently. We would negotiate differently. If even going for it, it should have been done in a completely different way… WE COULD BLACKMAIL THE WHOLE WORLD and be given money for services, as is now the case in many other countries”.

The same year – April 15, 2021 – Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk (who later became famous for calling the host country’s leader an “offended liver sausage”), claimed that his country could again “think about nuclear status” if it failed to join NATO and receive sufficient military aid from the West.

One can only assume how swiftly the UNSC would react if a North Korean politician were to make such a statement. But in the Ukrainian case, the head of the party, Aleksandr Kornienko, said that David Arakhamia’s words were nothing more than a “mental experiment”, after which no action was taken.

There are plenty of other parallels, but the size of the article is limited. The intelligent reader will, in any case, have enough information to make predictions about the future development of the situation.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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