Yongusil 101: South Korea between Russia-US Great Power Tensions

By | October 30, 2020 | No Comments

Moon Jae-in and Vladimir Putin during Moon’s state visit to Moscow, June 2018.

The US policy community has, since 2018, applied the term “Indo-Pacific” to the lands and waters from Hawaii to west of the Indian subcontinent. Underscoring the geopolitical connection between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, the so-labeled Indo-Pacific has become the focal point of growing tensions between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

The US Department of Defense’s 2019 “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report” designates the Republic of Korea as the “linchpin” of the US’s Indo-Pacific policy. Seoul, however, has been reluctant to fully sign onto Washington’s strategic designs, in no small part for fear of alienating China. However, the PRC is not the only rival of the US with which South Korea wishes to take an independent approach.

On a broad strategic level, the US considers China and Russia to be “revisionist powers” seeking to re-shape the so-called “liberal international order” according to their interests. Yet while issues such as arms control are not necessarily bound by geography, much of the Beijing and Moscow’s ostensible revisionism occurs within specific geographic spaces. Russia’s greatest challenges to the US, in geographic terms, occur in Europe and western Eurasia. However, in the context of the Indo-Pacific, Washington views the Russian Federation not as a revisionist power – a label it applies to the PRC in this theater – but as a “revitalized malign actor.” South Korea is, to be sure, not vulnerable toward Moscow the same way it is toward Beijing. Indeed, if anything, the Kremlin has taken pains not to alienate the ROK, whose investment in the Russian Far East and the Arctic Russia covets.

South Korea, however, does not share the US’s strategic enmity with Russia in any context. Quite the contrary, the ROK views Russia as a valuable partner in Korean peace and security. Alignment between Seoul and Moscow in issues such as economic collaboration between themselves in addition to North Korea, however, could place stress on South Korea-US policy alignment over the DPRK. One particular case-in-point is the way in which sanctions against Pyongyang undermine Moscow and Seoul’s ability to engage in economic collaboration that includes North Korea with the convergence of Russia’s “turn to the East” and South Korea’s “New Northern Policy.”

Even as Russia-US tensions, at least in the geographic domain, stem largely from issues in Europe and western Eurasia, the Korean Peninsula is set to be a veritable lightning rod for the strategic enmity between Moscow and Washington in the Indo-Pacific. The fact that ROK does not face the same vulnerability toward Russia that it does toward the PRC in no way means South Korean foreign policy will go completely unaffected by the Russia-US rivalry, particularly as Seoul continues its current policy of engagement with the DPRK.

Anthony V. Rinna’s “Russia–South Korea Relations and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy” was published in Asia Policy Vol. 15 No. 4 (October 2020).

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