In his famous essay about democracy, the British novelist E.M. Forster celebrated the political system’s encouragement of diversity and its tolerance of criticism. However, he only gave two cheers for democracy, rather than three, because democratic systems tend toward inefficiency and mediocrity. Forster believed that democracy, although better than the alternatives, deserves only qualified praise.
So, then, what about the armistice that spelled a temporary end to the Korean War 70 years ago last month? It certainly deserves at least some praise. After all, the armistice ended three years of terrible bloodletting. It created an international mechanism to keep the two warring sides from violating the terms of the agreement. And it has proven quite durable, having lasted for seven decades.
But the armistice also didn’t officially end the Korean War. It marked what was supposed to be a temporary truce. Both sides hoped for the reunification of the peninsula, though they obviously had different visions of what that reunification would look like. Nor has the armistice given way to a more durable peace.
The armistice redrew a line through the Korean peninsula that U.S. military officials initially established at the Potsdam conference in 1945 as World War II was coming to an end. That line runs not only through Korean territory but also through Korean families, Korean culture, Korean language, and one way or another the souls of every Korean person wherever they might live.
Until the 1970s, the armistice divided two relatively similar countries. Both Koreas established authoritarian regimes (with only a brief democratic interregnum in the south), rebuilt roughly equivalent economies, and maintained rather conservative and parochial cultures. But then South Korea struck off in a different direction and became a much more prosperous country, with democratic institutions and a culture open to the world. Reunification seemed structurally feasible 50 years ago, despite the obvious difference in ruling ideologies. Today, the DMZ created by the armistice separates two vastly different worlds.
The armistice saved lives. But it has also institutionalized a deeply hurtful division.
The war in Ukraine resembles the Korean War in many respects. There was an initial invasion that stopped short of occupying the entire country. Ukraine, like South Korea, fought back with the assistance of powerful allies (though without the addition of allied boots on the ground). After a year of back and forth, the two sides have battled to a near standstill.
In the next weeks and months, Ukraine’s counteroffensive could break through Russian lines. Ukrainian forces, with the military hardware supplied by the United States and European Union, could push Russian occupying forces out of the Donbas and even out of the Crimean Peninsula.
With that outcome in mind, Ukraine is currently rallying international opinion behind its version of a peace plan that calls for the exit of all Russian occupying troops and Ukrainian control of all its pre-2014 territory. Kyiv is hoping that a successful military campaign will create irreversible momentum behind a peace plan that attracts near-universal endorsement.
But the Russian army has dug itself deep into occupied territory, establishing several rings of fortifications and minefields that make it difficult for the Ukrainian army to advance. The Ukrainian counteroffensive has made some headway, but it has been slow.
Meanwhile, any hopes of a political change inside Russia have been stymied. Although there have been several challenges to Vladimir Putin’s authority, most recently the attempted mutiny by the Wagner Group mercenaries led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian president remains relatively secure in power. A presidential election next year will likely return Putin to office, especially since he has jailed, killed, or exiled any viable competitors.
Without a military breakthrough in Ukraine or a political breakthrough in Russia, the two sides will be looking at the same situation that confronted Korean forces in 1953. They will be stuck on either side of a line of demarcation that creeps only a little bit in one direction or another.
In that scenario, faced with a stalemate on the ground, international mediators will propose an armistice. Neither Russia nor Ukraine will be happy with a status quo that falls short of their ultimate goals. But exhausted by the fighting and short on resources, they likely will be willing to cut their losses and negotiate.
Here is where the Korean War analogy starts to break down. The Korean armistice separated two sovereign nations of shared ethnicity. Although an international authority was involved in administering the strip of territory separating the two countries, it was not involved in the governance of either North or South Korea.
The situation in Ukraine is more complicated. Although Russia has technically incorporated the Donbas and Crimea into the Russian Federation, the international community has not recognized those new borders. An armistice in Ukraine would deal not only with the cessation of conflict, it would have to address the political status of these occupied territories.
Russia has a high degree of comfort dealing with regions of ambiguous status. The frozen conflicts in Georgia and Moldova produced Russian-allied enclaves that have received very little international recognition but have nevertheless challenged the territorial integrity of those countries. Following this pattern, Moscow’s fall-back position would be to use Russian involvement in the Donbas and Crimea to make it more difficult for Ukraine to function as a unitary country and complicate its plans to join the European Union. An armistice of this nature would turn Ukraine into an enormous grey area on the edge of Europe—territorially compromised, economically challenged, and not fully inside Western alliances.
Kyiv, meanwhile, might count on the populations of the Donbas and Crimea to decide to rejoin Ukraine, either after an internationally supervised referendum or through partisan warfare. Despite the economic losses Ukraine has suffered, its prospects will still be rosier than Russia’s since it will be the beneficiary of European largesse and trade.
For this reason, a ceasefire signed by Ukraine and Russia in 2024 will not likely last until 2094. Unlike Korea’s armistice, the Ukrainian counterpart will be truly temporary. It will be replaced either by resumed fighting or undermined by economic and political realities.
It’s too soon to cheer any kind of armistice in the Russian war in Ukraine. Neither side is willing yet to stop fighting. Koreans who long for a reunified peninsula will understand the desire of Ukrainians to reunite all regions of the country. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht’s aphorism about heroes: Pity the country that has no armistice, but pity the country that needs an armistice.