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20.01.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The Thirty-Eighth Parallel and Russia’s Special Military Operation in Ukraine

On January 8, 2023 Andrey Danilov, Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine suggested that the Russian government may propose a “Korean solution” for bringing an end to the military operations in Ukraine, which would involve dividing the country and legally enshrining Kiev’s loss of control over eastern Ukraine. He added that certain (unnamed) South Korean officials, speaking to him, have expressed their regret that their predecessors had agreed to split up the country into two parts, with a demilitarized zone in the middle.

As readers will remember, the 38th parallel North marks the approximate route of the demilitarized zone which has divided North and South Korea since the 1953 ceasefire had put an end to the Korean War. But a review of the events that led to the choice of that line as the boundary will make it clear that the Korean situation is very different from the Ukrainian one. Those differences need to be considered in greater detail.

To begin with, the 38th Parallel is not just a line marking the position of the front as it was at the end of the Korean War. The border is in almost exactly the same place as the line that marked the occupation zones in Korea. And while in 1945 there was no thought of breaking up the country, as the Cold War set in the situation began to change. Unlike Germany, the Korean peninsula was divided into two separate states, each of which saw itself as the only legitimate state and claimed jurisdiction over the entire peninsula. Of the two states, South Korea could claim to have attained statehood first, and the United Nations accepted the results of its elections, while North Korea had different arguments – which the present author finds more persuasive. Firstly, because North Korea held elections, albeit illegitimate ones, in the southern half of the peninsula. Secondly, those elections took place according to the procedure set out in the 1945 agreements, that is, before the US broke that agreement by submitting the Korean question to the UN, which, given its composition at the time, was certain to vote the way the US wanted.

As a result Seoul, on occupied territory, was officially the capital of North Korea until 1972, and Article 3 of South Korea’s Constitution still states that the whole peninsula is part of South Korea. Moreover, South Korea has a government body called the Committee for the Five Northern Korean Provinces which is officially responsible for administering these breakaway territories. And according to South Korea’s National Security Law North Korea is not a country, but an anti-State organization, and so we could say that Seoul views Pyongyang in the same way that Kiev viewed Donetsk and Lugansk, until these unrecognized republics became part of the Russian Federation.

When the Korean War began, both sides insisted that they were the victim of unprovoked aggression by the other side. North Korea claims that South Korea was the first to attack. Technically, this is incorrect, although it is possible that the major attack launched by the North may have coincided with one of the many provocations launched by the South Koreans. But there was certainly no unprovoked attack launched against a peaceful country.

We shall now look at the nature of the conflict. The Korean War was not a proxy conflict between the USSR and the US, fighting through their puppets. On the contrary, it was a civil war which outside influences then transformed into an international conflict. The undeclared war along the 38th Parallel and the left-wing uprisings in the South were so intensive in nature, with an average of three incidents a day, that it is possible to describe them as an open war rather than just exchanges of fire across the border.

It should also be noted that each side was making preparations to escalate the conflict to a more serious level. When the North Koreans occupied Seoul, they discovered a large number of documents containing information about the preparations for war. Syngman Rhee was aiming for a rapid escalation of the war into a global war against Communism which would allow “Greater Korea” to seize the Chinese region of Manchuria and the Soviet Primorye region, which Syngman Rhee and his associates believed should be treated as “Korean ancestral territories.”

At first neither Moscow nor Washington wanted to openly support “their” Korean protégés. However North Korea managed to persuade Moscow that South Korea was on the verge of a revolution, and that once their army had been defeated in the regions adjoining the front and the capital had been seized, Syngman Rhee’s regime would collapse. In fact, it is hardly surprising that North Korea jumped to this erroneous conclusion – after all since the US had chosen not to intervene in the Chinese civil war and support its regional ally Chiang Kai-shek, it seemed reasonable to suppose that it would definitely not support Syngman Rhee, with whom it had more difficult relations. In addition, US Secretary of State Dean Acheson claimed that Korea was not part of the USA’s defensive perimeter, and that if it was threatened it could “appeal to the United Nations.”

However, after China had fallen to the Communists the right wing of the Republican Party began to accuse the Democrats of “favoring the Reds.” The government was under strong internal pressure from Senator McCarthy and his supporters. Furthermore, lacking enough Korea specialists and being blinded by its own political ideology, the US saw the Korean Civil War, not as an internal conflict between the North and South, but as part of a wider conflict. It was for this reason that the US immediately sent its forces into the Strait of Taiwan in the expectation of an attack by Communist China on Taiwan, and possibly an attack by the Soviet Union on Japan.

The Truman administration, reluctant to use the term war, initially referred to its operations as a “special police action.” Moreover, in an attempt to portray the Korean War as a “campaign by the international community to punish an aggressor”, the US soldiers in Korea did not fight under their own flag, but that of the United Nations, although in fact the UN contingent was almost entirely made up of Americans and was led by a US general.

Nevertheless, when the territory of South Korea was effectively under the control of the UN forces, the question was what to do next. But before the UN command could reach a decision on this issue, on October 1, 1950 Syngman Rhee ordered his forces to cross the border and attack North Korean territory, leaving his allies with no choice but to follow. In South Korea October 1 is still celebrated as Armed Forces Day, although during the original incursion back in 1950 the South Korean military simply attacked civilians and fled when they met any opposition. This general situation was confirmed by a small number of exceptions. On the South Korean side, it was not the Koreans, but the UN forces who did most of the fighting.

After that the war took on an international character on the North Korean side as well. When the South Korean army crossed the border the Chinese government was faced with a dilemma – as supporting North Korea would prevent them from rapidly taking over Taiwan. But the Americans were already conducting systematic flights over Chinese territory, carrying out attacks, and bombing infrastructure facilities such as the Sup’ung hydroelectric power plant, which supplied power to both North Korea and nearby regions in China. Syngman Rhee’s expansionist plans were also well known and at least some members of the Chinese government were convinced that if the North Korean regime fell the forces of the “free world” would not stop there.

However neither China nor the US officially took part in the war. Soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army fought in Korea as “Chinese national volunteers”, while modern Chinese propaganda portrays the Korean War as a war fought between China and the US on Korean soil, in which China was defending its national interests.

The course of the war swung like a pendulum, with Seoul passing from one side to the other four times, but by the summer of 1951 it was clear that neither side would be able to achieve an outright victory. The front line stabilized along the 38th Parallel, and talks began, as a result of which each party retained the territory they currently occupied. As for the victims, by the end of hostilities in both North and South Korea some 10% of the population had been killed or injured or had disappeared without trace. In absolute terms it resulted in more causalities than any other war except the First and Second World Wars and the less well-known Second Congo war.

Nevertheless, each side was able to claim that it had not been defeated and that the “attacks by the aggressor had been repelled.”

The peace talks took a long time and on both sides the “doves” were able to prevail over the “hawks”. In South Korea the Truman sidelined MacArthur, while in North Korea the less well known figures of Pak Hon -yong and Lee Seung-yup were purged by Kim Il-sung. The charges against the latter two figures were based on a mixture of real and invented facts and Pak Hon-yong was convicted of being an American spy. However most non-Communist historians believe that his and his associates’ convictions were not unfounded and that the real reason was that Pak Hon-yong wanted to continue with the war while Kin Il-Sung was in favor of peace talks.

But the main opponent of peace talks was Syngman Rhee – and the Americans were even tempted to organize a coup in order to overcome this obstacle. That plan, known as Operation Ever-ready, was never put into effect, but, as a result of Syngman Rhee’s objections, South Korea never signed a peace treaty. Thus, the peace treaty was only signed by North Korea, the Chinese volunteers and the UN forces.

In order to minimize the negative effects of its refusal to sign the treaty, South Korea was pressurized into signing a Mutual Defense Treaty, under which the South Korean armed forces are subordinate, not to the country’s President but to the Joint Command (in effect, to the USA). Syngman Rhee would not be able to launch another war without Washington’s approval.

Given the above background it is clear that, in terms of its character and outcome, the 1950-53 Korean War and the Ukrainian conflict have very little in common. Both in terms of their origin, and in terms of the international participation, the two conflicts are quite different. Now that the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk have ceased to exist, whether and to what extent the Ukrainian conflict can be seen as a civil war is now debatable, to say the least.

To conclude with a rather trivial observation, if Ukraine were to be divided in a similar way as Korea, say along the River Dnipro, then the line in question would be a border, with no demilitarized zone. It would not be a border between Western and Eastern Ukraine, being two parts of a former state, but between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.

Moreover, such a border would be seen by the public on both sides as a defeat, and not as a victory. In Ukraine, because it would mean that Russia had occupied a significant part of its territory, and in Russia because a number of territories that were acquire by it following the referenda would thus remain as part of Ukraine. A peace agreement on such terms would be unlikely to last long and each side would be ready to further escalate the conflict in order to achieve something they could describe as a victory, rather than a “shameful peace”.

Given the above situation, it appears likely that the South Korean officials whom Andrey Danilov claims to have spoken to are actually the product of his imagination. “Big mistake”, “cession [of territory]” – these terms do not apply to the end of the Korean War. Some commenters are therefore of the opinion that the comments about then 38th Parallel are also invented.

And if Andrey Danilov and his colleagues identify them with South Korean government of the 1950s, then the comparison is far from flattering to Kiev. After all, it is now a well-known fact that the “White Terror” in South Korea, both during and after the Korean War, claimed more victims than the “Red Terror” did. And most of the attacks in that terror campaign were carried out by semi-criminal paramilitary “Youth Corps”, who occupied a similar position to Ukraine’s volunteer brigades. If our readers want to know more about the leader who Ukraine’s government is comparing itself to, then our site has a number of other articles about South Korea under Syngman Rhee – and they can note the parallels for themselves.

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


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