Crimea and Lessons for the Korean Peninsula

April 10, 2014

Russia’s intervention into Crimea might be a model for future Russian interventions. Perhaps counter-intuitively, political-military planners looking at the Korean Peninsula show be concerned.

Ambassador McFaul’s recent excellent article on the “post-Cold War era and Russia’s intervention into and annexation of Crimea” gives us substantial insight into President Putin’s future foreign policy of aggression on its borders. Conversely, as if to downplay the international impact of Putin’s provocative action, President Obama has stated that Russia is merely a “regional power.” These two statements—the former well-informed and latter significantly less so (no doubt by staffers with limited perspective)—provide us with realistic and unrealistic views of what the world should expect from Russia in future opportunities for intervention. One place where this future is highly relevant is the Korean Peninsula, where the Cold War never ceased and where Russia borders a region that consistently experiences a dangerous ebb and flow of dangerous provocations and geopolitical tensions. Furthermore, a recent article by Colonel Dave Maxwell rightly suggests that Russian strategy for intervention contains strong unconventional and political warfare components. And just to remind us all that tensions will not be minimized within the North–South Korean context, the exchange of artillery fires between North and South Korea on March 31st, though causing no damage, is an indication of how things can become tense on the Korean Peninsula without notice.

On that note, a crisis in North Korea, whether it be war with the Republic of Korea (ROK), collapse of the Kim regime, civil war inside the North, or any other crisis development unpredictable from the seat in which we all sit, will lead to dire consequences for all of Northeast Asia and will provide a compelling opportunity for Russian intervention in a country on its border. Russia’s incursion into Crimea provides an outline of what the world can expect should a crisis in North Korea actualize, although Russian objectives if such an eventuality were to occur would differ from those in Eastern Europe. Tactics of political warfare, backed by military action, would characterize Russia’s actions, and the excuse of security and economics would be used to justify them, rather than the need to protect Russians with which Moscow rationalized its approach to the current Crimea crisis.

While recent Obama administration responses demonstrate the limitations faced by the U.S. and its European allies in NATO when considering military options in response to Moscow’s provocative initiatives, this is not likely the case in North Korea. To the contrary, the ROK–U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty, U.S. forward-basing, and the integrated ROK–U.S. military command structure provide significant capability to intervene in North Korea should conditions warrant it. To that effect, the ROK–U.S. alliance maintains significantly greater preparedness to deal with a crisis on the Korean Peninsula than the U.S. and NATO maintain in Eastern Europe; however, negotiations with Russia may not be easier, just different.

The lessons learned in Crimea have extraordinary significance for all Northeast Asian actors when addressing a crisis in the Korean Peninsula. Russia maintains its geographical, and therefore strategic, reach in that part of the world, and though not as compelling as Russia’s interests in Crimea, there are certainly potential parallels between Russia’s actions in Crimea and its prospective actions in the event of a crisis in North Korea, with military intervention being the most basic similarity.

Crimea is not the first instance since the dissolution of the Soviet empire that Russia has employed military intervention to serve its interests. Georgian breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia come to mind as border areas where Russia has taken some form of military action. But beyond that, we should recall that in 1999, a Russian infantry company of 200 men captured Pristina airport during the military confrontation in Kosovo, an action that caused confusion within NATO (the American commander of NATO forces ordered a subordinate British general to retake the airport, in response to which the British officer “refused to start World War III”). Moscow saw its interests in the Balkans to be substantive and took actions that guaranteed its interests would be met. The gambit worked because NATO commanders could not agree on appropriate courses of action.

That said, defense of the Ukraine was probably not high on the priority list for Pentagon planners as a vital national interest, though it was apparently indeed high on Moscow’s list of military plans. By contrast, Korea has always been near the top of the DoD’s planning list and has consistently been there since the Korean War.

So in the event of a major crisis in North Korea, how would a Russia intervention unfold?  Russia borders North Korea on a 17-kilometer front at the far northeastern tip of the peninsula at the mouth of the Tumen River. That border supports a train crossing that would be the primary avenue of approach by Russia’s Eastern Military District (formerly the Far East Military District). That district commands two army corps, with at least six divisions, and elements quite capable of deploying into the Najin-Sonbong area now referred to as the Nason Special Economic Zone. The 25th corps is the descendant of the 25th Soviet Army that occupied the northern half of Korea in 1945 and set up Kim Il-sung as the leader of the new North Korean state during the period 1945-1948. The 25th Army led the Soviet entry into the WWII Far East Theater in early August 1945 to fight the Japanese. They conducted amphibious landings at North Korea’s far northeastern port of Unggi (now Nason), advancing into Korea far more quickly than the U.S. The Russians could easily repeat this action as this area is close to Russian Navy bases around Vladivostok. The point is that, as a starting point, we should not see Russian intervention as difficult or unlikely, but well within its capability. Such an intervention would impact all regional actors to a significant degree. It certainly would affect the options available to North Korea necessary to maintain the authority of the Kim regime under extreme crisis, and it would influence to a measureable degree the response of the ROK–U.S alliance to such a crisis. Needless to say, it would also impact any of China’s decisions regarding its own possible intervention in the same crisis, something many analysts see as likely.

The tactical situation on the Korean Peninsula has changed over the decades in terms of weaponry, deployment strategies, economics and politics on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone. Seoul and Pyongyang defensive and offensive planning operations have been adapted, upgraded and, as demonstrated by empirical data, become more specialized. Recently, North Korean asymmetric capabilities have forced the ROK–U.S alliance to plan for defense against such adjustments in North Korea’s capabilities and assessable employment strategies. However, for North Korea, its military preparedness along its northern borders does not begin to match that of its forces along the DMZ.  The vast majority of the North’s asymmetric capabilities are not deployed to support operations in the north, though there are numerous weapons of mass destruction sites located there. Organized into regional corps, North Korea’s northern border forces are likely no match for Chinese or Russian forces intending to intervene. Furthermore, if the potential crisis in question is the outbreak of war against the South, the Kim regime’s military leadership could not spare extra forces to reinforce its northern borders except for local low-level and aged reservists conducting homeland defense. That would be similar to the futility of Nazi Germany’s mobilization of grandfathers and young teenagers to defend Berlin at the end of WWII.

North Korea’s alliance-level relations with Russia ceased shortly after the fall of the former Soviet Union, particularly after Russia and North Korea signed a friendship treaty that did not include reference to a military alliance. In that context, where do North Korean leaders flee if a crisis leads to their total loss of control? The northern borders not only offer the opportunity for North Korean refugees to flee during a crisis into China or Russia, they also offer avenues of escape for the North Korean elite. Russian and/or Chinese intervention would definitely complicate the non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO) of Kim regime leaders and their families. Enabling a Kim regime leadership NEO could very well play into the hands of the Russians as they negotiate end-state conditions—a form of political warfare—with other states involved in the crisis.

Beijing has recently made its intentions known through an announcement that China will not permit war in the Korean Peninsula. This warning was obviously designed to make clear to all parties concerned that it will do what is necessary to stop hostilities from getting to the point where North Korea ceases to be a viable state. Anyone with even a little understanding of Chinese–Korean relations over the millennia knows that the Chinese have always had a major stake in Korea and views its relations with Korea in terms of security consequences. For instance, one can drive from the bridge that connects Dandong, China and Sinuiju, North Korea to Beijing in a few hours—meaning that the potential of having Americans so close to Beijing at the Yalu River is not a comforting thought to Chinese leadership.

Additionally, Russia’s ability to intervene militarily 1,400 kilometers away on the northeast edge of North Korea no doubt concerns Beijing in an area where Chinese, North Korean and Russian borders all come together. The potential there for confrontation is no small matter for any of the parties involved. Moscow’s track record of moving quickly to intervene in a crisis would easily test Chinese decision-making in terms of determining the nature and the timing of its own intervention in a North Korean crisis. Consequently, Beijing’s decision to intervene may now be a foregone conclusion for Chinese political leaders and military planners as they reassess such issues after the Crimean affair. Chinese leaders may see a decision to intervene initially as one of localizing intervention in the far northeastern area of North Korea to pre-empt Russian initiative.

For the ROK, crisis in North Korea represents opportunity. Reunification has been a common goal for both North and South Korea since its separation in 1945 and any removal of the Kim regime would carry with it the prospect of an opportunity for the ROK, though heavily dependent on the nature of a regime collapse. If the North started a war by invading the ROK, the proximity of Seoul to a major portion of North Korea’s military capability could very conceivably cause hundreds of thousands of South Korean civilian casualties within days. This would seemingly justify ROK–U.S. alliance attempts to destroy the Kim regime and eliminate the North Korean threat once and for all. Doing so would require conquering the entire North Korean landmass in order to eliminate any possibility of a rump state survival. This is where Russian and Chinese intervention would become very problematic for all concerned and is the base of Colonel Maxwell’s argument on political warfare.

In another scenario, should the Kim regime collapse and other leaders vie for power, civil war and chaos could become a significant possibility. The internal slaughter of North Korean citizens (whom ROK Supreme Court judges interpret through the ROK constitution as being ROK citizens) may be justification for the ROK to intervene in North Korean territory (which the ROK constitution states is ROK territory) for humanitarian reasons regardless of international opinion or support. Such a civil war and all of its humanitarian aspects, plus strategic implications such as loss of WMD control, could well lead to intervention by multiple regional actors, including Moscow.

For the U.S., the combination of crisis and commitment would potentially put it in a position where direct confrontation is likely by U.S. forces, in concert with the ROK military, and Russian intervention forces, as well as those from China. This is a much more likely scenario of the U.S.–Russian force-on-force conflict than an American military confrontation with Russia in the Ukraine.

For Japan, Russian intervention would be nothing new. At the end of WWII during Operation August Storm, the Soviet Union attacked Manchuria and the Northwest Pacific littoral, taking the Kurile Islands, which Russia still holds in dispute today. For the United Nations, it would be a nightmare. As permanent members of the Security Council, Russia and China have the ability to veto any UNSC resolution opposing intervention into North Korea, thus leaving the governing body essentially helpless.

As U.S. strategists plan and implement the Asia Pivot, the consequences of crisis in North Korea, and the response of Russia and China become more relevant to planning assumptions for the Pentagon and every Northeast Asian actor. Any crisis in North Korea could have extraordinary impacts on the world economy and geopolitics for decades to come. Such potential consequences would undoubtedly serve as Putin’s justification for intervention.


Robert M. Collins is a 37-year veteran employee of the U.S. Department of the Army and served 31 years in various positions with the U.S. military in Korea, including several liaison positions with the Republic of Korea military. Collins is a freelance writer focusing on Korean security issues and US interests in Northeast Asia. He is the author of Marked For Life: Songbun – North Korea’s Social Classification System, published by the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea, Washington, DC.


Photo credit: Christopher Schmidt