Business Standard

Why the war may be heading for a cease-fire

If we have learned anything from the Korean War, it is that a frozen conflict is better than either an outright defeat or an exhausting war of attrition


Sergey Radchenko
After a year of brutal fighting, in which thousands of lives have been lost, civilian infrastructure destroyed and untold damage caused, the war has reached a stalemate. Neither side will countenance a negotiated settlement. On the battlefield, battered armies contest small strips of territory, at a terrible cost. The threat of nuclear escalation hangs in the air.

This isn’t Ukraine today; it’s the Korean Peninsula in 1951. No two wars are exactly alike, of course. But in the long history of carnage, one war stands out for its relevance to the current bloodbath in Ukraine: The war in Korea from 1950-53, where the South Koreans and their allies, headed by the United States, battled it out against North Korean and Chinese troops, backed by the Soviet Union. There are all sorts of lessons to be gleaned from the conflict. But the most important might be how it ended.

In Ukraine, an end to the war seems a long way off. For Russia, victory would most likely entail securing the Ukrainian territory it claims as its own. For Ukraine, nothing less than driving Russian troops out of the country — including Crimea — will do. Neither side is interested in negotiations, and it’s hard to see how a peace settlement would come about.

In Korea, the situation was similar: Neither North nor South Koreans, nor their sponsors, were in a hurry to end the war. But the conflict — which claimed as many as three million lives and destroyed entire cities — gradually fizzled out, leading to a cease-fire and a temporary division of the Korean Peninsula that proved more lasting than anyone could have imagined at the time. In the end, a stalemated war proved preferable to the alternatives.

The decision to start the war in Korea was made by one man: Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union. After initially rebuffing the pleas of North Korea’s dictator, Kim Il Sung, for Soviet permission to invade the South, Stalin changed his mind in January 1950. The reasons were twofold. First, with the impending conclusion of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of alliance, which would be signed in Moscow on February 14, 1950, Stalin knew that he could count on the Chinese to participate in the war if required.

Second, and of potentially greater importance, were misleading signals from the United States. Chief among them were Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s famous pronouncement on January 12, 1950, that excluded Korea from America’s “defensive perimeter.” Combined with intercepted intelligence, it was enough to reassure Stalin — wrongly, as it turned out — that the United States would not intervene in Korea.

Given the green light to invade, North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950, soon capturing Seoul and pushing forward in a grand sweep that could well have ended with their capture of all of Korea. But a decisive intervention by the United States, under the United Nations flag, brought disarray to the North Korean ranks and turned the tide of the war. In late September 1950, Gen Douglas MacArthur, in charge of the West’s war effort, made the fateful decision to cross into North Korea, aiming to liberate the northern half of the country.

Watching these developments from afar, Stalin urged the Chinese to join the fray. After some initial hesitation, Mao Zedong, whose Communist victory in China had come just the year before, agreed. The Chinese secretly began crossing into North Korea in late October 1950. The war entered a new bloody stage.

Initially, the Chinese “people’s volunteers” (as these troops were deliberately miscalled) scored impressive victories, pushing the United Nations forces south of the 38th parallel and recapturing Seoul. But their momentum did not last. Plagued by logistical difficulties and American bombing, the offensive petered out by May 1951. But nor were the Americans able to make much headway in the months that followed. Although the two sides fought several battles between 1951 and 1953, the war basically stalled.

It was clear by the summer of 1951 that the war was not going anywhere, yet it took two more years — punctuated by a lethal artillery barrage across the line of control and intermittent fighting — before the fighting was brought to an end. In the interim, tens of thousands were killed, and widespread US bombing of North Korea’s hydroelectric dams led to complete blackouts in the North.

The ostensible reason for the delay was that many Chinese and North Korean prisoners of war showed no interest in being exchanged, preferring to stay with their captors. But the real problem was Stalin’s reluctance to agree to a cease-fire. “I don’t think you need to expedite the war in Korea,” he wrote to Mao in June 1951. “A protracted war, first of all, is allowing the Chinese troops to perfect modern fighting skills on the battlefield and, secondly, is shaking Truman’s regime in America and is undermining the prestige of Anglo-American forces.”

The dictator was perfectly happy to let the war continue. The Chinese, the Koreans and the Americans were doing most of the dying, after all. It was only with Stalin’s death in March 1953 that Soviet leaders reconsidered the whole misadventure and prodded their allies toward an agreement. The armistice agreement was duly signed in the little village of Panmunjom on July 27, 1953. It was, crucially, a cease-fire. There was no peace treaty, no negotiated settlement. Technically, the war is still frozen, not finished.

Even so, an uncertain peace followed and, remarkably, it held. There are indications that Kim Il Sung pondered another invasion of South Korea in the late 1960s, when the United States, facing defeat in Vietnam, appeared least prepared for another flare-up in Korea. But neither the Chinese nor the Soviets were enthusiastic. The Sino-Soviet alliance had long cratered, and the erstwhile comrades-in-arms had even fought a brief war over their disputed frontier in 1969. In the 1970s North Korea began to fall substantially behind in economic competition with the South. Unification, if it came, could be only on Seoul’s terms.

Seventy years after the Korean armistice, the Kim dynasty still rules the North. The ugly regime, now armed with nuclear weapons, is still backed by China and Russia and, in its turn, has reportedly helped the Russians to wage war in Ukraine by providing ammunition. China, too, has taken a benign view of Vladimir Putin’s misadventure, though, unlike Stalin in 1951, Xi Jinping probably does not want to see this war drag on indefinitely. He would surely be very happy with a cease-fire.

That may in fact be the preferred solution in other quarters — certainly in the global south, which sees nothing to gain from the conflict, and among many constituencies in the West. The parties most clearly opposed to the idea are those who are fighting it out on the ground: The Russians and the Ukrainians. For Ukraine, repelling an invading force that lays claim to almost one-quarter of its territory, such a position is understandable.

Yet if neither side makes significant gains in coming months, the conflict could well be heading for a cease-fire. The Ukrainians, though perhaps not fully recovering their territories, will have fended off an aggressive foe. The Russians, for their part, can disguise their strategic defeat as a tactical victory. The conflict will be frozen, a far from ideal result. Yet if we have learned anything from the Korean War, it is that a frozen conflict is better than either an outright defeat or an exhausting war of attrition.

Today, the glittering metropolis of Seoul — savaged by the Korean War — stands as a reminder that it is not those who win the war who matter, but those who win the peace.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. ©2023 The New York Times News Service

Disclaimer: These are personal views of the writer. They do not necessarily reflect the opinion of or the Business Standard newspaper

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First Published: Feb 24 2023 | 10:28 PM IST

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