K-Drama Show Depicts Foreign Policy Dilemmas Also Seen In Russia-Ukraine War – OpEd


In contemporary Korean drama, “saguek” is a genre that dramatizes historical events. The Korea Broadcasting Station (KBS) is currently airing a new segue drama, “Goryeo-Khitan War,” which dramatizes the war between Korea’s Goryeo Dynasty and the Khitan Empire in Northern China in the early 10th century. The drama has received positive reviews for the quality of the production, balancing historical narrative and fictional adaptation, nuanced portrayal of historical characters. 

From the drama’s portrayal of Korea’s historical war, I observed policy lessons applicable to the contemporary Russia-Ukraine War. Despite the differences in the time period and geopolitical location, I highlight four types of policy dilemmas depicted in the drama, which are also present in the largest contemporary warfare of the 21st century.   

Policy Dilemma 1: Should diplomatic deception be used at the risk of the loss of credibility?  

In the drama, Goryeo needed more time to organize reinforcements as the Khitan army advanced deeper into the Korean Peninsula. Goryeo’s king risked sending an envoy with a fake surrender message to Khitan’s emperor, persuading the latter to halt his army’s advance temporarily.

Several of Goryeo’s ministers, however, criticized the decision. “In the future, Khitan will distrust us, even if we genuinely declare surrender!” Later, discovering Goryeo’s deception, Khitan’s emperor vowed destructive retaliation. Fortunately for Goryeo’s court, its reinforcements arrived in time to deter Khitan’s renewed offensive. But suppose Goryeo’s defense failed? The defeated Goryeo’s fate might have been more devastating due to its deception. 

Russia repeatedly denied the intention to start a war, even as Russia’s forces mobilized near Ukraine’s border. Russia then engaged in surprise “special military operations” to overthrow Ukraine’s government, nearly capturing Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. The surprise attack, however, failed, and Ukraine’s distrust and animosity toward Russia increased, exacerbating prospects for diplomatic settlement between the two countries.     

Policy Dilemma 2. Should an adversary be provided face-saving justification to end the war?

Several Khitan officials recommended to their emperor for withdrawal as the invasion prolonged. Khitan’s emperor, however, rejected withdrawal without an achievement from his first overseas conquest. Eventually, the Goryeo king’s pledge to visit Khitan as a peace envoy became a “face-saving” achievement for Khitan’s army to withdraw from Goryeo. 

The Russia-Ukraine War has turned into an attrition with severe losses for both adversaries. Russia, however, is unlikely to accept a ceasefire without achievements to compensate for its losses. At present, Russia’s conditions for armistice include the annexation of Ukraine’s southeastern provinces and Ukraine’s pledge to strategic neutrality.

Ukraine, however, has rejected ceding its sovereign territory to Russia. Fearful of Russia’s future invasion, Ukraine is opposed to a neutrality status that prevents receiving security protections from the West. Subsequently, formulating a diplomatic settlement that provides face-saving achievement for Russia without incurring territorial or security losses for Ukraine remains the major obstacle to ending the current Russia-Ukraine War. 

Policy Dilemma 3. Should the war be prolonged to avoid an unfavorable peace? 

As Khitan’s army advanced closer to Goryeo’s capital, many of Goryeo’s ministers advocated for surrender. Despite the likely cost of ceding a significant portion of territory to the Khitan, ministers urged their king to spare the country from the sufferings of prolonged war. Goryeo’s king, however, continued the war. As a result, Goryeo’s capital was captured by the Khitan army, which then pursued fleeing Goryeo’s king into the southern parts of the Korean Peninsula. 

Had Goryeo surrendered, the scale of the war’s destruction might have been mitigated, though likely forced to accept an unfavorable peace arrangement. Through persistent resistance, however, Goryeo’s court eventually achieved a long-fought victory over the exhausted Khitan empire. 

The Russia-Ukraine War might have ended earlier had Ukraine conceded to most of Russia’s demands in the early period of the war. Through continuing the war, however, Ukraine did achieve tactical successes in recovering large parts of its territory from Russia’s occupation. Through persistent resistance, Ukraine and the West might eventually pressure exhausted Russia to withdraw entirely from Ukraine’s sovereign territory, similar to how the Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan after ten years of unsuccessful military operations. However, having already experienced two years of war, are Ukraine and the West willing to endure the costs of further attrition? The policymakers will have to weigh whether the prospects for eventual victory or a more favorable peace settlement justify the costs of the prolonged war.

Policy Dilemma 4: Which future predictions are correct in the foreign policy debate?  

The viewers of the historical drama show already know the war’s outcome. Knowing Goryeo’s eventual victory, drama viewers can confidently cheer for the characters who advocated for Goryeo’s resistance against Khitan’s invasion. However, from the perspectives of historical characters from this period, the future outcomes were uncertain. Would continuing the war lead to victory or a more devastating defeat for Goryeo? Would an early surrender lead to an acceptable peace or intolerable subjugation? Even Goryeo’s loyal ministers were divided between the hawks and doves because the consequences of their policy decisions could not be predicted with certainty.  

Divergent future predictions have caused contemporary policymakers and experts to take different policy stances on the Russia-Ukraine War. Some have predicted that Ukraine’s military victory is unlikely and have recommended a peace settlement with Russia. Others have warned that peace with an undefeated Russia is unlikely and have recommended assisting Ukraine in a long-term war against the belligerent adversary.      

In the drama, Goryeo’s ministers are portrayed as generally respectful of their colleagues with opposing perspectives on the war and supportive of their king’s final decisions. For contemporary policymakers who face similar policy dilemmas with the Russia-Ukraine War, as well as other international issues, perhaps the K-drama show conveys the following lesson. Amid an uncertain foreign policy environment, a country’s policymakers may have different policy stances but should nonetheless strive to respect each other’s intentions and concerns in their collective policy decision-making. 

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