A ghost of the Cold War has appeared in the political debate about the future of Ukraine: it is the fear that the country will break in two as happened with the Korean peninsula. The stalemate at the front, without either side being able to unbalance the balance, has caused more and more political and academic voices to observe the possibility that, as happened between North and South Korea, there will be a cessation of hostilities that leads to two opposing realities, that of free Ukraine and integrated into the Western bloc. and that of a Ukraine de facto annexed by Russia.
The end of World War II led to the division of the Korean peninsula, until then occupied by the Japanese Empire. The part north of the famous 38th parallel would be protected by the Soviet Union, and the south, by the United States. After failed attempts at reunification, two new states were proclaimed in 1948, Communist Korea and Korea allied with the United States. North Korea initiated a war of invasion of the South in 1950 that provoked the military intervention of the United States, under the protection of the United Nations. In favor of the north, China participated militarily, while the Soviet Union gave support in resources. In 1953 the armistice was signed by which both countries temporarily ceased hostilities, without there being a peace agreement. And so it continues to this day.
The Korean scenario has always been on the table in the Ukrainian crisis. Numerous academic analyses pointed already in 2022 in this regard. But it was this year that the fear of the partition of Ukraine was gradually taking shape. Last January, Oleksii Danilov, secretary of Ukraine's National Security Council, warned: "We are being offered the Korean option. ' Here are some Ukrainians, here are other Ukrainians and here there are no Ukrainians.' I am convinced that one of the options they will offer us is this 38th parallel." Oleksii Arestovich, a well-known Ukrainian public commentator and former adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, stressed the issue in February: the country may end up "in a scenario of two Koreas." "Worst of all," Arestovich added, "is that the West thinks this way, and we are totally dependent on them."
The words of Danilov and Arestovich were spoken before the Ukrainian counteroffensive began – it began in June – and in which both Ukrainian society and its allies in NATO had expectations of success that have proven exaggerated. Russia continues to occupy 18% of Ukrainian territory. It is the same percentage since last November, since the last victorious Ukrainian offensive, when half of Kherson province was liberated.
Former US President George W. Bush raised the Korean option at a conference on 8th September at the annual meeting of the Yalta European Strategy Group (YES) in Kiev. Bush introduced in his speech the possibility that the war, as in Korea, will divide the country and never formally end. Asked if Ukraine should cede part of its territory to achieve peace, Bush replied that this was a decision that the Ukrainians must make, and that the United States and the rest of the allies will support them if they so decide or if they want to continue fighting.
Both Zelenski and the high command of the Ukrainian Armed Forces ask for more time, ask for support for a war that lasts for years, but not all of Kiev's international partners are for the work, as the president himself has acknowledged. In his September 19 address to the U.N. General Assembly, the Ukrainian president said he was "aware of attempts to reach murky [peace] pacts behind the scenes." It was clearer in an interview, also this September, with The Economist. Zelenskiy admitted that he had detected a change in some of the international leaders with whom he meets periodically: "I have this intuition, reading, listening and looking them in the eye when they tell me 'we will always be with you'. And I see that he or she is no longer here, not with us."
Wednesday saw a clear example of the fragility of these alliances. Poland has been one of Ukraine's most unconditional supporters in the war and despite this, a bilateral conflict over agricultural imports has caused an earthquake in which Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Wednesday that no new arms shipments to Ukraine were planned, beyond those already agreed. Polish President Andrzej Duda even compared his neighboring country to a desperate person who drags to death those who want to help him: "It is as if we are dealing with a drowning person. Anyone who has tried to help someone who drowns knows that it is extremely dangerous because it can drag you into the depths."
Four options for the future
At the annual days of the YES group, a grim report on the future of Ukraine in 2040 was presented. The document, which has been drawn up by Ukrainian politicians and summarized by MP Oleksii Zhmerenetskii, offers four possibilities for the future, and only one is positive. The first states that Russian domination can lead to a world war if the invading country decides to attack other Black Sea states. The second option indicates that, after Ukraine is forced to agree to a ceasefire by ceding territory, popular anger leads ultranationalist groups to power and turn the country into an autocracy. The third option notes that Ukraine is disintegrating into multiple autonomous regions. The fourth option, the positive one, is the one that contemplates that Ukraine wins the war and expels the Russians from its territory.
The Korean scenario would be part of the second option, which predicts a serious danger of democratic involution in Ukraine. In fact, an advisor to the Slovak Foreign Ministry explained this September to EL PAÍS that one of the main concerns of his Government is that, when the time comes to force negotiations between the two sides, Ukraine takes an authoritarian path.
"Winning the peace"
There are academics who are arguing that the Korean option may be the least bad for Ukraine. The main supporter of this thesis is Stephen Kotkin, one of the most recognized experts on the history of the Soviet Union and Russia. From his position as an academic at Stanford University and the Hoover Institution, Kotkin argues that for Ukraine the time has come "not to win the war, but to win a lasting peace." In an August 25 interview for War on the Rocks, one of the most reputable Ukrainian war analysis outlets, Kotkin noted that battlefield events prove that the moment of euphoria has passed and the Russian military "did not crumble."
For Kotkin, Ukraine's victory is to join the European Union and a new security model, either within NATO or in a defense agreement similar to the one South Korea has with the United States. "For this you need the whole territory?" asks Kotkin. He is not clear that it is possible, not only in terms of military resources, but also in terms of the social reality of the areas annexed by Russia with the support of the separatists of Donbas: "In Crimea [Black Sea peninsula illegally annexed by Russia in 2014] there are already more than two million Russians. If Crimea is liberated, will these Russians be expelled? Will there be ethnic cleansing like the one carried out by the Russians with the Tatars [native people of Crimea]? Because these people are also a potential focus of insurgency."
U.S. soldiers encountered a group of refugees on their march to the Naktong River region in August 1950.Bettmann (Bettmann Archive)
"South Korea does not have all the territory, but it has security after an armistice," Kotkin explained at a conference last July of the Hoover Institution: "It is an imperfect way out, because it left many families divided, but South Korea is one of the most prosperous societies in the world. Ukraine can follow this path."
The division of Germany
Kotkin isn't the only one who thinks so. In a debate organized on September 8 by the American radio NPR, leading experts bet on the same thing. Carter Malkasian, a former adviser to the U.S. General Staff and director of the defense analysis department at the Naval Postgraduate School, said that "the Korean armistice model may be the best option, although nothing guarantees its success." Jong Eun Lee, a retired South Korean military officer and professor of political science at North Greenville University, was also clear in this regard: "It is controversial to say, but after such a long division, which has left [in Korea] a cultural, political, economic difference, perhaps better than starting a war, or unifying the two countries in such a costly way as in Germany. Progressive peaceful coexistence is more realistic."
The German case has also been widely used to understand what the future holds for Ukraine, but there are notable differences, because the two Germanys, like the two Koreas, were formed and internationally recognized states. Moreover, there was no armed conflict between West and East Germany. The German case is used from Kiev to demonstrate that despite the Russian occupation of part of its territory, free Ukraine can be a member of NATO, as was the Federal Republic of Germany.
Malkasian reiterated an aspect in which all military analysts consulted in recent months by EL PAÍS agree: "Negotiations will be possible as the fighting continues and both sides are exhausted, accumulating large losses." Malkasian stressed that the only way for this to happen, for future peace negotiations to take place, is precisely through long-term military support from Ukraine's NATO allies, because "it is the only way for Ukraine to maintain its position and some pressure on Russia."
"Without a major Ukrainian military advance or without a major political change in Russia, the two sides will find themselves in the same situation as the Korean forces in 1953 [when the armistice was signed], they will find themselves blocked in a line of war that advances little, for one side or the other." This is what John Feffer, an academic at the U.S. Institute for Policy Studies, wrote last August. Feffer believes that with this blockade, and after an enormous attrition of both armies that predisposes them to negotiate, the international community will propose an armistice. But Feffer is not optimistic about an end to hostilities. Firstly because, unlike the two Koreas, the borders of the territories annexed by Russia are not recognized by the international community. And experience, according to him, shows that "Russia, as it did in Georgia and Moldova, will use the situation to destabilize Ukraine." Ukraine, for its part, "will want to convince the population of the occupied eastern territories to reunify to become part of prosperous Europe."
The Israeli model
There is another country that for Zelenskiy is a model to follow, Israel. In numerous speeches, the president has declared that Ukraine must be militarized for a life in constant threat, and must have an air defense system that allows its cities to develop despite periodic bombings. Kotkin has criticized this idea of transforming Ukraine "into a fortress state", because "it does not help to achieve a lasting peace" and because it would hardly marry with EU membership.
And could Ukraine be a member of the European Union in a permanent military conflict with Russia? Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba gave the answer in an interview with EL PAÍS in July 2022: Cyprus, which has part of its territory occupied by Turkey, is a member of the EU. "Europe is full of conflicts that fall under the cloak of endless negotiations," Kuleba added, "I am sure that if there is a will to find a political solution, there will be a way for Ukraine to become a member of the EU."
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