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Russia-Ukraine: The Korea Frame


I’ll admit that I emoted a bit after visiting the DMZ during my trip to South Korea last year. There’s nothing like comparing the energy and vibrance of South Korea on the one hand with the brutality and domination of North Korean life on the other. A trip to the South Korean War Museum was particularly affecting, and discussion of Ukraine at the KIDA conference itself made me think in terms of parallels between the conflicts.

One of the primary justifications for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was the idea that Russians and Ukrainians are fundamentally the same people, sharing the same culture if not necessarily the same language. Of course, the cultural and linguistic differences that distinguish Russia and Ukraine are unquestionably greater than those that separate the Koreas. But Russian President Vladimir Putin was not wrong to argue that Ukraine and Russia have a deep historical connection. And there can be no question that Russia’s core war aim is to prevent Ukrainian democracy from succeeding because that would demonstrate that Russia itself could prosper with democratic institutions. This is the last thing that the band of thugs inhabiting the Kremlin wants people to believe. 

Long story short, while I think that Pop Realist accounts of this war are generally deficient in how they approach questions of institutionalization, regional dominance, and power relationships, I also chafe at the idea that a country of 40 million people should be forced to live in a shadowy quasi-democracy just because its next door neighbor is violent, grumpy, and has nuclear weapons. It doesn’t have to be that way. Even if Ukraine does have to come to a peace that transfers some territory to Russia, the US and Europe should take steps to ensure that the rest of the country has every opportunity to succeed politically and economically.

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