From Republic.ru, July 25, 2022, https://republic.ru/posts/104513.Condensed text:
One of the leading US military experts, Adm. James Stavridis (Ret.), former NATO supreme allied commander Europe, made a very interesting prediction recently. Commenting on the military conflict in Ukraine, he said: “I see this one headed toward a Korean War ending, which is to say an armistice, a militarized zone between the two sides, ongoing animosity, kind of a frozen conflict. Look for that in a four-to-six-month period. Neither side can sustain it much beyond that.”
How it was done in Korea.
Since Stavridis compared the current situation to the Korean War, let’s take a closer look at the first direct military clash between Moscow and Washington, which happened 70 years ago, as part of “cold war 1.0.” When Japan surrendered in 1945, the Korean Peninsula was divided into Soviet and American occupation zones along the 38th parallel. Later on, Korea repeated the fate of Germany – due to growing differences between the Soviet Union and the US, the two sides failed to come to an agreement and create a single state.
The northern part of Korea was led by Kim Il‑sung, who had previously served in the Soviet Army, whereas in the south, the Americans put Syngman Rhee, a radical nationalist and anti-Communist, in charge. Right away, Kim Il‑sung started bombarding his patrons, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, with ideas about how they could seize the southern part of the country by force. For a long time, Stalin refused to authorize the attack, reluctant to engage in a direct military conflict with the US. According to some historians, Stalin only gave the green light after Pyongyang misinformed him, claiming that a massive Communist uprising was about to begin in the south and that the local people would welcome the “liberators” from the north. Soviet generals designed an invasion plan. The Korean People’s Army received a significant number of weapons. At the same time, Stalin said from the start that Soviet troops would not be deployed to Korea. Manpower was to be supplied by China, which had recently emerged from its own civil war. Mao Zedong put together several units composed of ethnic Koreans, and they joined the North Korean military.
On June 25, 1950, North Korea attacked the Republic of Korea (ROK) [see Vol. 2, No. 22, pp. 13-15]. The ensuing war continued for three years, and it had more twists and turns than any thriller (or horror film). The tide of war swept back and forth, and both sides faced numerous occasions when they were on the brink of complete collapse. Initially, the Korean People’s Army had the upper hand. It captured Seoul and quickly advanced deeper into the ROK. Very soon, the South Korean forces and the US troops sent in from Japan to reinforce them were confined to the so-called Pusan Perimeter, a small area around the seaport of Pusan on the southernmost tip of Korea.
But the US took advantage of the fact that the Soviet representative was boycotting UN Security Council meetings, and pushed through a resolution designating the forces of a dozen or so countries that intervened in the conflict on behalf of the ROK as the UN Command. Gen. [Douglas] MacArthur, appointed commander in chief of the UN forces (the bulk of which came from the US), built up enough reserves and launched the famous amphibious assault on the seaport of Incheon. As a result, most of the North Korean forces were cut off. Simultaneously, the US launched ruthless air raids all across North Korea. The DPRK forces had to abandon Pyongyang and retreat almost all the way to the Chinese border. Kim Il‑sung begged Stalin and Mao Zedong to intervene immediately. The Chinese leader, who had just defeated the Kuomintang [Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist party], thought the advancing UN forces might cross the border and invade China. The 200,000-strong People’s Volunteer Army (in reality, regular units of the People’s Liberation Army) entered Korea and immediately launched a massive offensive, routing US troops. MacArthur wanted to launch a nuclear strike against China, and the US leadership seriously considered this option. Eventually, the US did not dare to use nuclear weapons, and president Harry Truman replaced MacArthur with Gen. [Matthew] Ridgway as commander in chief. With great difficulty, Ridgway managed to stabilize the situation.
By the summer of 1951, after a series of bloody back-and-forth battles, the frontline returned to the 38th parallel – basically, the same place where the war had started in the first place – and remained there for the next two years. Despite heavy fighting, neither side was able to achieve a breakthrough. On the contrary, the longer the fighting continued, the more obvious it became to Beijing, Moscow and Washington that they had exhausted all their military options. Simply put, neither side had enough resources to score a military victory.
Truce talks based on the idea of returning to the status quo started as early as 1951. Amazingly, representatives from both the US and China were basically ready to strike a deal. It was a matter of national pride that caused negotiations (and bloodshed) to continue for much longer. China and North Korea simply refused to accept the fact that their service members who had been taken prisoner did not wish to return to their countries. After many months of talks, the parties agreed that a special commission composed of representatives of neutral states would be established to decide the fate of the POWs. Eventually, an armistice agreement was signed in the village of Panmunjom on July 27, 1953, establishing a four-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone along the 38th parallel. (This village saw a lot of heavy fighting, without either side gaining a decisive advantage, thus becoming a symbol of the stalemate.)
A pointless war.
The Korean War is a perfect example of how useless it is to try to resolve disputes by force. This was the bloodiest conflict after World War II. Millions of people were killed. Essentially, all infrastructure was wiped out on the Korean Peninsula. Both sides committed mass murders of POWs and civilians. And a huge amount of resources were wasted for no good reason: In the end, both sides were forced to go back to the situation they had started with.
This was the first real clash of the original cold war. In the course of the Korean War, the Soviet Union and the US mastered the art of inflicting maximum damage on the opponent without starting a nuclear war. Responding to Kim Il‑sung’s plea for help, Stalin dispatched an entire fighter aviation corps to protect North Korea against air raids. Soviet pilots wore Chinese military uniforms and carried fake documents with made-up Chinese names. . . . and their fighter jets carried PLAAF (People’s Liberation Army Air Force) markings.
Of course, after the very first dogfight, during which [Soviet] pilots spoke Russian over the radio, their involvement in the war became an open secret. However, the White House made sure to conceal this fact from the general public in the US, because they thought (perhaps rightly so) that if the American people found out that Soviet pilots were attacking Americans, it would cause such an outrage in the US that a direct conflict with the Soviet Union could become inevitable. From this point on, the US never repeated the mistake made by secretary of state [Dean] Acheson, who shortly before the war did not include Korea in his definition of America’s “defense perimeter” in the Pacific, and thus emboldened the future aggressor with hope that an attack on South Korea might go unpunished. The Soviet Union, for its part, never boycotted the meetings of the UN Security Council again, no matter how unpleasant they were.
But the Korean War never ended. The DPRK and the ROK never signed a peace treaty. The Korean Peninsula is still divided by the DMZ. Environmental activists are the only ones happy about that, because it has become home to a number of endangered species. From time to time, confrontation between the two Koreas escalates, leading to military incidents. Meanwhile, even though the two sides were in about the same state of ruin at the time the armistice agreement was signed, they have both changed dramatically in 70 years. One part of Korea had a string of military dictatorships but eventually became a genuinely democratic nation and one of the world’s economic giants. The other part of the peninsula became a medieval tyranny, which from time to time scares the rest of the world with its nuclear weapons.
At this point, we cannot be certain that Adm. Stavridis’s prediction will come true. It seems that the parties to the conflict in Ukraine are far from thinking that they have reached a stalemate. Both are enthusiastic and hope to achieve a military victory. The realization of a “strategic impasse” is not likely to come within weeks or months. First, the parties have yet to exhaust all their options for achieving military success. Ukraine hopes that modern weapons provided by Western countries will offset Russia’s military superiority. Russia knows it can always step up its game by declaring a general mobilization and converting its economy to a war effort. If we project our current situation onto the Korean War, we could say it is still early 1951. This means it will be years, not months, before we see an armistice.