In different periods of history, Korea and Ukraine both became the victims of Moscow’s hybrid aggression. What we see now in North Korea is a probable future for those Ukrainians who, intentionally or unintentionally, became hostages in Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) / Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR). A timeless role of an architect of puppet republics that often look more like concentration camps with totalitarian regime correctly belongs to the Kremlin. Now the question is whether the world will finally start learning from the past experience or keep making the same dangerous mistakes over and over again.
April 12, 2014. East of Ukraine. Unknown armed people wearing balaclavas and military uniforms seize government buildings in Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, and Druzhkivka. In the coming week, the same scenario is replayed in Gorlivka, Yenakiive, Makiivka, Mariupol, Novoazovsk and many other cities of the Ukrainian Donbas. People chant “For Donetsk / Lugansk Republic! For Russia!” at the central squares. Mayors and city clerks are replaced by warlords. Well-armed and well-organized squads get into an armed confrontation with the Ukrainian military arriving in the region to resolve the situation. Militants call themselves “rebels”, push a broad propaganda campaign with calls for secession from Ukraine and proclaim the ongoing action “a civil war”. By an odd coincidence, most commanders of the “people’s militia” will later appear to be citizens and residents of Russia: Igor Girkin (callsign Strelkov), Igor Bezler (callsign Bes), Arseniy Pavlov (callsign Motorola), Alexander Mozhaev (callsign Babai). Masked newcomers stand out of the crowd with their unusual accent and use the words not familiar to the local residents, such as mysterious “porebrik” (stands for “curb” in one of the local dialects, typical for the Northern part of Russia). Anyhow, this fake self-appellation “rebels” is picked up by foreign media outlets and sticks to the Russian militants for a long time.
October 14, 1945. Pyongyang. It’s been exactly two months after Japan accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and surrendered Korea, which had to be divided at the 38th parallel into the Soviet and American zones for a period of 5 years. Pyongyang stadium hosts a public gathering to honor the Soviet Army. The commander of the 25th Army Colonel General Chistyakov introduces to the crowd a 33-year-old Soviet Army captain with the Order of the Red Banner on his chest. Chistyakov calls this man “a national hero” of Korea and “a famous guerilla leader.” The young captain, in his turn, makes a speech praising the Soviet Army. Both the man himself and the text of the speech leave an odd impression among the audience: very few people have heard of this “national hero” who, besides that, used some strange words in his speech. The secret of this weird text was simple – in fact, it was written by the political division of the 25th Army of the USSR in Russian and then translated into Korean by a Soviet officer of Korean descent. The crowd at the stadium does not know yet that the young order-bearer with the alias Kim Il Sung (in translation – “the rising sun”) will very soon become the legendary leader of North Korea.
Common features of hybrid aggression against Ukraine and Korea
At first glance, these two stories have little in common. They are separated not only by 69 years and a distance of 6,600 km but also by historical preconditions that contributed to the creation of these isolated zones. At the same time, the history of North Korea holds answers to important questions of our time:
- Who and how governs the war-torn part of Donbas, i.e. self-proclaimed DPR and LPR?
- What may happen to these territories in the future, if conflict freezes and things are left as they are?
Kim Il Sung appeared at Pyongyang stadium, not by accident. It stands to mention that Kim, though a Korean by birth, was living in China since he was 8. Kim fought against the Japanese on the Chinese side and most of his guerrilla operations took place on Chinese territory, which means that he had a remote relation to Korea. From November 1940 to September 1945, Kim Song Ju (Kim Il Sung’s real name) was living in the Soviet Union, where he had come with almost totally annihilated guerilla group of communists from Manchuria. After a short stay in the USSR filtration camp and verification of his identity, Kim Song Ju took a training course at the Khabarovsk Infantry School. In 1942 Kim, already holding captain’s rank, was assigned to the newly formed 88th Separate Infantry Brigade (1,000 to 1,700 people), predominantly manned by Chinese soldiers. Yet, Captain Kim was appointed to lead the Korean battalion of the brigade. Kim stayed with the 88th brigade in the USSR until September 1945, for the brigade did not take part in the battles for Manchuria and Korea. Over these years, Kim Il Sung saw the birth of two sons, and both of them got Russian names – Yura (the future Kim Jong Il) and Shura (will die as a child).
After the surrender of Japan in World War II, the northern part of Korea de facto was ruled not by the representatives of Korea, but by the Soviet generals: Chistyakov, Lebedev, Romanenko, and Shtykov. The leading role in the creation of local party cells belonged to the Soviet intelligence and army political division.
Pseudo-elections and pseudo-referendums
It is important to understand that the Communist Party was not popular in North Korea; quite the opposite, it had a strong nationalist movement. Nonetheless, this fact could not stop the Soviets – they found a way to bring Communists to power even here. Through various manipulations, they created the United Democratic National Front which had to unite all political parties, and in late 1946 – after the secret meeting of Kim Il Sung and Stalin – Korea saw fake elections in the best Soviet traditions.
Their fakedness centered around the idea that only one candidate – from the United Democratic National Front – was nominated for each district. The voters could vote either for him or against him – without alternative candidates, while all ballots “for” were to be placed into the white ballot box, and votes “against” had to go into the black one. The turnout was also unrealistically overblown – 99.6% of voters took part in the elections and 97% voted for the proposed candidates. This is how the first People’s Committee of North Korea was formed.
These fake elections in North Korea remind not only typical elections in the Soviet Union and in all countries that were under USSR occupation in the last century, but also the latest referendum in the occupied Crimea which took place in 2014. The Crimean referendum essentially demonstrated the same approaches: restriction of voting options, gross violations during the voting process, and the results with all indications of a sham. Russia reported an overly high turnout of 83.1% and declared a chimerical result of 96.77% supporting the “reunification” of Crimea with Russia. While, based on the independent reports, the actual turnout was only 32.4%.
Obedient puppets of Moscow
Still and all, let’s go back to North Korea and the Soviet puppet Kim Il Sung. Back in early 1946, by the instructions from the Russian generals, Kim Il Sung became the head of the Provisional People’s Committee of North Korea that acted as the government. Since that moment, Kim had basically become the sole leader of North Korea. Yet, “the sole” does not mean “independent” – Kim followed all orders that he was receiving from the Army Command and from Moscow.
In 1947, it was decided that the fate of Korea would be determined by the United Nations. Despite the fact that North and South Korea were to be united under a single government, North Korea was busy with drafting its own Constitution, which had to become the fundamental law for both parts of the country. Under the guise of new police patrols that were handled by Koreans from the Soviet Union, North Korea formed its own army and even navy. In 1948, after predictably gaining no Seoul’s support of the idea of reunification on the conditions dictated by the Soviet Union, the North proclaimed the DPRK.
The puppet Kim becomes a Chairman of the Cabinet of the newly created republic and, together with South Korean pro-communist underground, actively promotes the idea of a military seizure of the South in the upper reaches of the Soviet government. In 1950, after lengthy negotiations between Kim and Soviet top officials, including the General Secretary Stalin, the military operation against Seoul got a green light. The Kremlin believed that it would be a short and victorious war – Moscow expected that support of the invasion among the people in South Korea would be high and that Americans would not interfere in the conflict.
On June 25, 1950, the Korean People’s Army of 135,000 men along with 150 Soviet T-34 tanks entered South Korea. Moreover, the DPRK brazenly announced that it was the leader of South Korea Rhee Syngman, who attacked North Korea first. The DPRK had quickly seized Seoul, but the UN promptly sent a peacekeeping contingent to the war zone. The lion’s share of the peacekeepers were American soldiers. There is no point in retelling the entire course of the war, yet by October it became clear that UN troops would crush the army of Kim Il Sung, their surrender was just a matter of time. However, in cahoots with the Kremlin, Communist China entered the game and sent sizable ground troops to help the DPRK. The USSR was supporting joint ground forces from the air. The armies on both sides suffered heavy losses, and the war reached a stalemate.
In 1953, after Stalin’s death, the warring parties signed a ceasefire agreement and established a demilitarized zone (DMZ) along the 38th parallel. The conflict froze, the world forgot about the DPRK, and it quickly turned into a gloomy militarized concentration camp supported by the USSR and China. Only in 1991, when the USSR dissolved, both Koreas signed Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation. Yet in 2013, the DPRK nullified all non-aggression agreements, including the armistice agreement reached back in 1953. The world was persistently trying not to pay attention to the signs of looming threat coming from the DPRK. Only in 2016 – after new tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles – the world finally woke up and realized the possible outcomes of a long story with hybrid peace in Korea.
You may say, how is the war in Ukraine related to this? Those of you who have been monitoring the armed conflict in Donbas and the military seizure of Crimea will find much in common with the events in North Korea in the middle of the 20th century.
In a similar fashion, Moscow was deploying troops in Ukraine in 2014: they were not only army servicemen and mercenaries from the Russian Federation, but also local residents who had completed special training in military camps in Russia under the supervision of professional instructors. Similarly, the Kremlin prepared the candidates out of the local residents who had to take certain positions immediately after the takeover of the government offices. These local collaborators kept in touch with agent handlers from Russia and traveled to Moscow to negotiate and receive new instructions on a regular basis, just like Kim Il Sung and other Korean stooges of the Kremlin, whose numerous stories would never fit into a single article. As in North Korea, it was Moscow making a decision to proclaim “independent republics” – the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic. Similarly, the leaders of both “republics” were and are the Kremlin’s puppets.
Even Moscow’s mistakes are strikingly similar. Just like in Korea, the modern Kremlin expected that the staged “uprisings” would eventually find support among the Ukrainians, and Russia would have no problem gaining full control over the whole territory of Ukraine. When by the end of spring 2014 it became clear that most Ukrainians would not lift a finger to support the Kremlin’s plans, and in summer 2014 artificially created republics were forced to rapidly retreat and lose their positions, Moscow, just like in the 1950s, resorted to open intervention. The Russian Army conducted massive shelling of Ukrainian territories from Russia and sent to Donbas not only armored vehicles but also air defense systems, one of which shot down a passenger plane (MH17 flight), killing all 298 people on board.
Arms, troops, money was flowing like water from Moscow both to the DPRK and to other puppet republics and territories – Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), DPR, LPR, occupied Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, and other regions. Still, if evaluated fairly, the number of weapons that Russia brought to the occupied east of Ukraine is unprecedented: 600 tanks, 1257 armored combat vehicles, 295 MLRSs, 479 air defense systems, 368 anti-tank weapons, plus countless small arms, mines,and ammunition. This is without weapons which were brought by the Russians to Crimea after its occupation in 2014. Fake republics of Donbas also have an army of about 40,000 people – both servicemen of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and mercenaries of all sort. And this army continues to kill people every day. Will it confine itself to a territory it has already seized? Who knows, but hardly.
The tragic consequences
Unfortunately, the tragic similarities between North Korea and the occupied Donbas go beyond the ones already mentioned. The most serious consequence of the creation of an authoritarian and isolated state on the Korean peninsula is an unprecedented violation of human rights and freedoms in the DPRK. Repressions, tortures, executions, cruel punishments for the slightest misconduct, re-education camps and almost complete isolation from the world have become the hallmarks of North Korea. And the chief architect of this perverted system was the Soviet Union.
Now history repeats itself. Lawlessness and brutality reign in the occupied Donbas. People are seized in the street or at home and taken to an unknown location. The captured undergo tortures of unprecedented cruelty in the basements of both Ministries for State Security of the self-proclaimed republics. People are executed and slaughtered without investigation and a court trial for their property which is confiscated after their death. The cities are ruled by commandants and warlords, who are free to do whatever they want. Rape and cruel beatings have become a routine.
Where could this lead?
If left unattended, the occupied Donbas may suffer the fate of North Korea. When kids grow in the climate of extreme cruelty where life has no value, isolated and brainwashed by aggressive propaganda, they start looking at the world from a different angle. Their consciousness becomes distorted, and the whole world turns into a mortal enemy. Then, when adults, they can kill without remorse and commit any crime just to see the demonstration of approval from the semi-divine dictator. Children of blind leaderism would not think twice before using biological, chemical, nuclear or any other weapons of mass destruction. These people, crippled by cruelty and propaganda, are pitiful, but they still can blow the whole world if they get a chance.
Unfortunately, we do not learn much from history and tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Yet, sometimes real-life situations push us towards evolution and make us become wiser. Today, the world is once again on the verge of a great war. Now is the time to face the truth and admit: when problems are not solved on time and locally, they become global. As we may see from the example of North Korea, peace is not always a benefit, at least not with everyone and not under any conditions. Sooner or later a hybrid peace with despotic dictatorship turns into a hot war. So hot that any time it may spiral into a thermonuclear one.