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South Korea’s lessons for Ukraine’s reconstruction

ByJames Stavridis

Over the past week, I spent several days in Seoul, a pulsating city of more than 10 million, about 20 per cent of South Korea’soverall population. The visit brought to mind the end of the Korean War — and the increasing signs that the end of the war in Ukraine may look similar.

The Korean War is iconic in my family. My father fought there in the early 1950s as a young US Marine officer. He often said to me that what happened in the years immediately after was nothing short of a miracle. My dad, eventually a senior colonel in the Marines, was not given to hyperbole or idealism. He meant the incredible reconstruction of South Korea that took it from a war-devastated land to the 10th-largest economy in the world.

What can the Western democracies do to enhance the outcome for our partner today, Ukraine, much as we did for the South Koreans 70 years ago?

As I drove around Seoul, above all I was struck by the incredible reconstruction. The city boasts mile after mile of high-rise office buildings, glitzy apartments and marble shopping malls. But none of that arose overnight from the ashes of the war that ended in 1953 with an extremely uneasy armistice. The entire Korean peninsula was largely destroyed by that conflict.

Which leads to the first lesson of the Korean War for Ukraine: Press the West for serious reconstruction aid.South Korea was stagnant in the initial postwar decade.The sheer determination of its people, coupled with gradual economic assistance from the West, allowed them to begin to improve conditions by the end of the 1950s. Then, South Korea began to accelerate significantly, both demographically and economically.

Today, Western firms see similar economic upside in postwar construction activities in Ukraine: Mass communications, electric power facilities, water treatment and new residential development will all be on the Ukrainian shopping list. An added positive for Ukraine reconstruction is the potential availability of hundreds of billions of dollars in Russian funds that are under sanction in the West.

A second critical factor for Ukraine will be obtaining ironclad security guarantees. That means, plain and simple, North Atlantic Treaty Organization membership. This is similar to what South Korea was granted as a full US treaty partner in 1953.

While there are legitimate concerns within the 32-nation alliance about admitting a member in an active conflict and with territory controlled by an enemy, the reality is that any military action by NATO to restore full sovereignty would be a collective decision. So, Ukraine could be brought into the alliance even with 15 per cent of its territory occupied by Russia; the bulk of the country would receive the collective-security guarantees of NATO’s Article V enjoyed by the other member states.

In terms of advantages for the alliance, Ukraine would have the most battle-tested, innovative and motivated forces in Europe. The Ukrainians have earned a spot on the team, and as I look back on my time as NATO’s military commander, I would have been happy to welcome them into alliance.

A third and final lesson from Korea for Ukraine is a harder one to accept: It is probably going to be necessary to acquiesce, at least for a time, in the occupation by Moscow of Crimea and a land bridge between that peninsula and Russia. In a sense, everyone will hate that outcome. Certainly, there will be voices in the West saying, “We can’t give an inch of territory to Russia’s aggression.” And the Ukrainians will say, “We will never surrender a single square mile of sovereign Ukrainian territory.”

But remember that Russian President Vladimir Putin will hate such an outcome as well — it will mean he has obviously and fully failed in his objective of conquering all Ukraine and will have to settle for the battle-damaged and heavily mined portions of the southeast, hardly a fulfilling prize.

Much as South Korea was not in a position to demand a complete territorial victory over the north in the 1950s, Ukraine is not in a position to demand a complete Russian withdrawal from its territory. Kyiv’s spring-summer offensive resulted in gridlock, and even with the addition of F-16 fighter jets next year (something long overdue), it appears unlikely that a real game change will occur. Much like the Korean War, this will probably bog down into a frozen conflict; the sooner large combat operations stop, the sooner the Ukrainians will begin to reconstruct.

So three lessons of Korea pertain for Ukraine: find the funds for reconstruction as rapidly as possible; construct real and enduring security guarantees; and be willing to negotiate a land-for-peace conclusion to combat. That is a realistic scenario that will set Ukraine up for success over time, although obviously the final decisions are for the Ukrainians themselves to make.

If such a deal is reached, here is my prediction: Despite being far smaller in terms of population and land, Ukraine will overtake Russia in a few decades in terms of gross domestic product, overall agrarian output, and certainly in the sense of being a vital, democratic society in which people want to live. I see nothing in the twisted policies of Czar Putin that will change that depressing outcome for Moscow. Let’s hope a Korean-style miracle of reconstruction is on the horizon for Ukraine.

(Published 12 November 2023, 04:15 IST)

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