A year after hostilities between Russia and Ukraine escalated into a full-scale war, the conflict and in particular Western powers’ involvement supporting the Ukrainian war effort could carry a number of important lessons for China, in particular for its security interests on the Korean Peninsula.
The importance of applying lessons from the Russian-Ukrainian War to East Asia has been widely raised by Western analysts, primarily for the furtherance of Western security interests by preparing Taiwan to asymmetrically counter possible military action by the Chinese mainland in similar ways to how Ukraine countered Russia. Often referred to as a “porcupine strategy,” this has involved preparations for mass mobilization, introduction of very large number of cutting edge handheld anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons among infantry, and emphasis on mobile missile systems for roles from anti shipping to air defense – among a range of other means that have already proven effective in blunting Russian offensives.
While provision of arms and training to Ukraine have been key to facilitating an effective porcupine strategy, NATO members have also used several hundred satellites and a number of airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) “flying radar” aircraft to provide massive support for communications, intelligence, and targeting data. Doing so has given Ukraine a clear picture of the movements of Russian assets, and provided a major force multiplier for Western-supplied precision guided weapons such as HIMARS rocket systems to facilitate highly precise strikes on positions deep behind enemy lines.
Although Ukraine is not a treaty ally of the United States or its Western partners, their strong interest in both weakening Russia and retaining Ukraine within their sphere of influence has led them to see major benefits from supporting an asymmetric Ukrainian defense to the fullest extent possible – short of initiating a full-scale NATO-Russia war. The means by which this has been pursued provides an important demonstration of how third parties can very actively participate in and shape a conflict with roles far beyond arms supplies, but do so without fully crossing the line to make mass deployments of their combat assets. Russia is thus made to face an adversary on the battlefield many times more powerful than it would have otherwise, while NATO’s refraining from full entry into the war prevents Russia, for fear of escalation, from targeting Western assets such as satellites and AEW&C aircraft that are central to bolstering Ukrainian forces.
In China’s case, Beijing has long perceived a potential threat from a U.S.-led invasion of North Korea, which is a Chinese treaty ally but which Beijing’s willingness to fight a war to defend has at times been questioned. Chinese forces previously intervened from October 1950 to push back a U.S.-led invasion of North Korea, which had been launched the previous month after a three-month campaign to drive northern forces out of South Korea. In that conflict North Korea’s inability to hold out against the United States and its coalition partners beyond the war’s first three months, and the resulting approach of coalition forces to China’s borders through Korean territory, resulted in a highly costly war, which drained the bulk of Chinese state resources, caused over 100,000 Chinese casualties, and on multiple occasions brought China close to suffering U.S. nuclear attacks.
With Washington having threatened, seriously considered, and come close to launching military assaults on North Korea on multiple occasions since, including most recently under the Obama administration in 2016 and the Trump administration in 2017, NATO members’ operations in Ukraine could provide a model for China to aid North Korea’s armed forces, the Korean People’s Army (KPA), without actively escalating to full scale participation.
The KPA adopted a porcupine strategy from the 1990s, when the threat of U.S. military action against North Korea was seen by both Pyongyang and Beijing to have increased significantly after the successes of Operation Desert Storm and subsequent disintegration of the country’s main security guarantor, the Soviet Union. Much as was later seen in Ukraine, albeit over a much longer period and on a greater scale, this involved a strong emphasis on mass mobilization, mass deployments of handheld anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons of increasing sophistication, and a heavy reliance on mobile missile systems. These systems ranged from ballistic missiles capable of targeting U.S. bases in Japan, and later Guam, to deny them as staging grounds for U.S. offensives, to mobile anti-ship cruise missile systems intended to compensate for the lack of a meaningful surface navy.
These capabilities continued to improve rapidly, particularly from the late 2010s. Mobile long-range air defense systems like the Pyongae-5, mobile solid fueled tactical ballistic missiles like the KN-23, very long ranged mobile guided rocket artillery systems like the KN-25, and new handheld weapons like the Bulsae-3 anti-tank missile, among many other examples, provided the potential to repel a U.S.-led assault with a relatively small defense budget. Like Ukraine, albeit to a much greater extent, the dollar’s far higher purchasing power in North Korea relative to its adversaries also allowed it to field much more capability with much less investment – which was particularly beneficial as the KPA sourced the very large majority of its armaments domestically.
Although North Korea’s nuclear program, and in particular its demonstrated capability from late 2017 to launch thermonuclear strikes on to the United States mainland using new ICBMs and miniaturized warheads, are seen to have significantly lowered the possibility of an attack, offensive military options are still not above consideration by Washington. In the face of a prospective attack on North Korea, as seen in 2016 and 2017, China could potentially seek to prepare the country in much the same way as NATO members did Ukraine beforehand.
This could include supporting North Korean forces to better use China’s military satellite network, particularly for precision guidance, intelligence collection, and communications; provision of advisers on the ground to support logistics and training with new generations of equipment, and transfers of weapons systems well suited to an asymmetric defense to supplement domestic ones. The Chinese HJ-12 anti-tank missile system in particular is thought to have a far superior performance to those in North Korean service, broadly comparable although in many ways superior to the U.S. Javelin missiles provided in tremendous quantities to Ukraine. The HJ-12 could potentially flow across the border preceding anticipated hostilities – as could mobile artillery and air defense assets.
Should a longer time period be available, the need to avoid violating U.N. arms embargoes on North Korea could potentially lead China to instead seek to support the production of more capable asymmetric assets by its neighbor’s own defense sector – something a number of analysts have speculated on, particularly for the KPA’s new rocket artillery systems.
Following the NATO model for supporting Ukraine’s war effort could also lead China to make limited personnel deployments to a hypothetical war zone in Korea, albeit at greater risk of being seen as a direct conflict participant. In December, British Deputy Chief of Defense Staff Royal Marines Lieutenant General Robert Magowan revealed that the several hundred Marines had been deployed in Ukraine from April, and carried out combat operations “in a hugely sensitive environment and with a high level of political and military risk.” This was far from isolated, with Russian sources widely alleging that military contractor units from across the Western world were playing a major role in the war effort – although like its allegations from April regarding British boots on the ground, these have been roundly dismissed in the West.
Involvement of Western personnel has nevertheless been significant, with the New York Times reporting in June that the United States had established within Ukraine “a stealthy network of commandos and spies rushing to provide weapons, intelligence and training… C.I.A. personnel have continued to operate in the country secretly, mostly in the capital, Kyiv, directing much of the massive amounts of intelligence the United States is sharing with Ukrainian forces.” It highlighted that “signs of their stealthy logistics, training and intelligence support are tangible on the battlefield.”
“Commandos from other NATO countries, including Britain, France, Canada and Lithuania, also have been working inside Ukraine… training and advising Ukrainian troops and providing an on-the-ground conduit for weapons and other aid,” the Times added, emphasizing the sheer “scale of the secretive effort to assist Ukraine that is underway.”
Although potentially less likely in the case of a Korean contingency, Chinese special forces, intelligence and logistics specialists, counterespionage agents, and other personnel could be deployed, with the likelihood and scale of any such deployments determined by the perceived potential risks and the urgency of the KPA’s need for such support.
Much as a Ukraine more capable of repelling a Russian assault was seen to benefit NATO members’ interests, so too is a North Korea capable of shouldering more of the burden of repelling a prospective Western assault highly beneficial to Chinese security. It could potentially mean the difference between having to send Chinese forces into Korea at the risk of war with the United States, and seeing Western powers either deterred from attacking or else suffering embarrassing defeats at the hands of its neighbor without overt Chinese involvement.
Unlike Taiwan, an island isolated from the territories of its Western supporters by thousands of kilometers of ocean, which would seriously limit wartime flows of personnel and supplies, for a Chinese effort to safeguard its security interests and preserve its Korean ally’s sovereignty the Ukraine model does have very significant applications should Pyongyang’s adversaries come to again consider military options.