The war in Ukraine will have far-reaching consequences beyond European security. For many politicians and experts in Europe the possibility of a full-scale attack on a sovereign country as Russia launched on February 24 on Ukraine, had for long been ruled a remnant of the past. The wake-up call to a new reality could not have been stronger and more painful. The true face, danger and unpredictability of authoritarian political systems and leaders were apparently not properly understood and acted on by European leaders. Even though it may be too early to make precise predictions, there are already some important lessons for European security as well as for security on the Korean Peninsula and East Asia generally.
Challenges for the Global Liberal Order
The Ukraine war has demonstrated that authoritarian leaders will in general, domestically, remain unchallenged in both their opinions and perceptions and thus run the risk of a biased and unrealistic understanding of the external environment.
President Putin has often referred to, and defended, this year’s invasion of Ukraine and the invasion of Crimea in 2014 with false historic and nationalistic arguments, including the need to make Russia great again. Similar language is employed by Chinese President Xi Jinping who frequently refers to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people and Kim Jung Un of North Korea often talks about hostile forces to defend his nuclear program. In all three cases, the leadership rely on a repressive culture that not just discourages but cracks down on differing opinions. Such a culture risks isolating leaders from a correct understanding of the international and security environment and eventually could lead to misjudgment and flawed decisions.
In the case of the war in Ukraine, the mood of ordinary Ukrainians assessed as generally pro-Russia by Russian intelligence was apparently flawed as was the strength of Ukraine’s resistance and the degree of military challenges. Further, it can be assumed that Putin’s correct understanding of the general situation and attitude towards the invasion may have been distorted by a close circle of advisers and combined with his own distorted views. Therefore, it can be inferred that this inability to challenge the leadership and widespread corruption caused failures in the chain of command, including upward intelligence reporting. These systemic risks of mismanagement, misunderstanding and misjudgment need to be both understood and mitigated with a combination of deterrence, dialogue and risk-management. However, deterrence, dialogue and the risk management approaches failed in the case of Ukraine. Strong words from European leaders and the capability of the Ukrainian military did not prevent Russia from invading.
It now appears that the war has also cleared some of the lingering suspicions among Western nations that there may be a kind of alliance of authoritarian nations in the making in which Russia, China and North Korea are forming the core with support from Iran, Syria or even Serbia and with several other nations still indecisive. This alliance is challenging the current global international governance system, which, according to China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, “does not represent the will of the international community” anymore. The February 4 joint declaration between China and Russia challenges the current liberal global order and the primacy of the United States, advocates authoritarian governments’ “democratic stability” and warns against the false and superficial nature of free societies that safeguard individual liberties. Notably, Wang Yi has indicated that the relationship with Russia is “better than an alliance” and so far, Beijing, albeit not supporting the Russian invasion up front, seems ready to pay the price for supporting Moscow in every other endeavor. On the other hand, North Korea as a member of this “anti-democratic” order has fully supported the Kremlin and its narrative about the war: Russia was forced to invade Ukraine in response to NATO’s eastward expansion and the “collective West” led by Washington in their crusade against Moscow.
Therefore, one can see how the abovementioned challenges inherent to authoritarian systems are relevant when analyzing the situation on the Korean Peninsula and Pyongyang’s strategic positioning.
Implications for the Korean Peninsula
Looking at the Korean Peninsula in specific, one might see how some of the challenges raised by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could be applicable to North Korea. Similar to Putin’s position in the Kremlin, it is to be expected that Kim Jong Un, as the Supreme Leader of North Korea, is hardly ever challenged in his views and understanding of the external environment. These oft unrealistic and skewed views risks causing misjudgment and false expectations. For instance, in the case of the Hanoi Summit, Kim Jong Un met Donald Trump sure to obtain concessions from the US Government. However, this conviction proved to be false and brought the Summit to a premature end. A similar situation might repeat itself in the future in case there is either a breakthrough in bi- or trilateral talks between the US, South Korea and North Korea or a pejoration of the security environment on the Peninsula. With less human contact with the DPRK, partly as a consequence of the pandemic, our correct understanding of current strategic thinking in Pyongyang is slowly eroding, making assessment even more challenging.
The Ukraine war has shifted international attention onto Russia, thus lowering issues related to China and North Korea from nations’ foreign policy priorities. The mutual benefits inherent to this entente of authoritarian nations, such as political and economic support, and the lack of international focus onto itself, has granted North Korea political and military “maneuverability”. In other words, in addition to the isolation brought by COVID-19, North Korea now has the time and the possibility to fully focus inward, and continue to safeguard its national interest, by further developing its missile and nuclear programs and conducting a flurry of missiles tests without major repercussions. The Ukraine crisis has also affected future chances of achieving de-nuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling has proven to be enough of a means of deterrence from EU, US and NATO intervention in the war, thus confirming North Korea’s assumption that nuclear capability is the only possible insurance against hostile attacks. Therefore, one can expect that North Korea will strengthen its missile and nuclear programs, following the Juche ideology of autarky and self-reliance. As such, after the invasion of Ukraine, the opportunity to negotiate a tradeoff between denuclearization and security guarantees with North Korea might now be ever more challenging.
As far as South Korea is concerned, a series of political implications to the invasion of Ukraine can be drawn. First, as in the case of North Korea and its alliance with “anti-democratic” nations, the Ukraine war has shown the importance of partners and international solidarity and support. Despite not being part of a military alliance, Ukraine has received tremendous international support. Ranging from the actions of businesses, individuals and NGOs to support Ukrainian refugees and substantial economic sanctions imposed on Russia to both military and political support shown by Western nations. A diversified international network through a multitude of channels has proven important both for upholding Ukraine’s domestic unity, organizing humanitarian relief, pursuing international solidarity and adding pressure on Russia. For any contingency related to South Korea, the importance of an extensive and multifaceted network would be equally important. Even though South Korea already has in place an extensive regional network comprised of not only governments but also business, academia, sports and cultural organizations, additional steps are required to make this network more integrated and cohesive. With US military capabilities likely stretched between Europe, the Arctic, the Middle East and Asia, Seoul will need to increase the combined deterrent capability of democratic nations in the region, including with neighboring countries such as Japan.
Moreover, the war in Ukraine has once again shed light on the crucial role that access to and sharing of information has during conflict. The Russian narrative supporting the war, the unprecedented intelligence sharing from US and UK sources prior to the war, individual stories and the brutal pictures from Russian attacks on civilians in Bucha, are just some examples. Every device from a simple smartphone to sophisticated satellite imagery can capture snapshots of the war, involving civilians, professional media companies, journalists and NGOs. To coordinate and control this constant flow of information is almost impossible. This is the new reality. To master such a situation, any nation or organization needs to first appreciate and accept the new reality and to develop policies that emphasize trust, understanding and diversity rather than try to regulate and restrict. Such policies start in primary education, where awareness of “fake news” must be raised and critical thinking encouraged. The political leadership needs to “lead from the front” and be close to their people.
Clearly, the risks raised by the invasion of Ukraine, when associated with the current situation on the Korean Peninsula, are real and present. Going forward, a new negotiating strategy to achieve peace and stability including denuclearization and predictability is needed, one that balances deterrence, dialogue and effective risk management. President Yoon has already announced he will focus on enhancing the alliance between the United States and South Korea and improve the latter’s military capability. This will improve deterrence, but more can be done to improve risk management on the Peninsula. As argued by Lt. Gen (retd) Chun In Bum in a recent article in 38 North, the importance of the United Nations Command in South Korea is not properly appreciated. Indeed, he asserts that “the war in Ukraine has demonstrated how difficult, if not impossible, it is to create an international military effort that is supported by the United Nations (UN)”. One could add that the same argument holds true for the importance of preserving the entirety of the Armistice Agreement and any “End of War declaration” need to reflect this reality. Efforts to maintain and revitalize the implementation of the Comprehensive Military Agreement from 2018 should be encouraged to further improve risk management. Continued efforts to resume dialogue is not only important to initiate discussions on de-nuclearization, but it can also serve as an instrument to better understand the situation in DPRK.
Though it is yet too early to predict the full extent of consequences of the Ukraine war, some implications for Korean security can be identified. First, following the Russian provocative statements of the possible use of nuclear weapons, achieving de-nuclearization on the Korean Peninsula will likely be even more challenging. Second, the value of a diversified and multinational network of partners and allies has been clearly on display during the war and South Korea would benefit from developing a similar network. Third, the information war in Ukraine has taken on new dimensions and nations need to develop policies centered on societal resilience, through trust and diversity, rather than trying to control through restrictions and regulations. Education can play an important part in such policies.
Lastly, with a more unstable, complex and competitive security environment including continued arms build-up, risks and incidents will occur. A balanced approached on improving deterrence, continued efforts to engage in dialogue and develop and maintain risk-management processes should be a priority.