Back to the Future: Concerns of a Cold War-Era Turn in Seoul’s Russia Policy

By | July 11, 2022 | No Comments

Fears of a veritable return to 1985 (or thereabouts) in terms of South Korea’s policies toward Russia – before Mikhail Gorbachev and later Ron Tae-woo, respectively, took steps that opened the way for greater connectivity between Moscow and Seoul – have prompted some of the ROK’s experienced Russia hands to caution against overt support for Ukraine in its war with the Russian Federation. In particular, one aspect of the debate that contradicts the opinions of those who believe Seoul’s support for Kyiv as part of the so-labelled “liberal international order” is the question of what exactly is at stake for Seoul’s national interest. 

As one former South Korean diplomat and now policy scholar argues, overt military support for Ukraine could turn the ROK into a veritable enemy of Russia, undoing decades of forward motion on Moscow-Seoul relations. 

 

[Diplomacy in Brief] Is President Yoon Not Thinking of Meeting President Putin? Cheongji Ilbo, June 12, 2022[1]

 

The Office of the President’s announcement on June 10th that President Yoon will be attending the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Madrid in late June indicates that there’s a chance he could engage in bilateral interactions with the Ukrainian delegation in attendance. Last week, when ruling party chairman Lee Jun Seok visited Ukraine, the Ukrainian president expressed the hope that President Yoon would visit the country, although it appears that he could perhaps meet with President Zelensky at the NATO summit (President Zelensky did not travel to Madrid, deciding instead to stay in Ukraine and deliver a speech remotely – ed.). Although the Ministry of National Defense pushed back against the idea last month, having agreed to provide weapons to Ukraine, South Korea is gradually moving in a more anti-Russia direction. Has the ROK government decided to become a full-fledged enemy of the Russian Federation?

It was understood that when Mr. Lee visited Ukraine, that there was no coordination with the government, but according to new information following the visit, there was already an agreement hammered out with the government, and that he was accompanied by a senior-level official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Up to this point, the British prime minister and the president of Poland, among others, have visited Kiev[2], but these countries did this as states expressing obvious hostility toward Russia. Even if the governing party’s chairperson insists that his visit was only a message of peace, the rest of the world won’t see it in only that way insofar as he is the chair of the party in power. The chairperson of the ruling party, followed by the president of South Korea participating in the NATO summit, is a sure-fire sign that the ROK is officially adopting an anti-Russia stance. It appears that there will be discussions about military support for Ukraine, rather than humanitarian support, at the upcoming NATO gathering. For all their lack of knowledge of the complex backstory regarding how the situation in Ukraine erupted, it’s is understandable how much sympathy the Korean people have for Ukraine, yet looking at the situation objectively, if our government – which is supposed to advance our national interests – approaches things by that standard, there’s no denying the situation could turn seriously scary.

First off, is there no consideration at all for South Korean citizens and companies inside Russia)? In response to the decision to deploy THAAD, China engaged in underhanded measures to intimidate Korean companies, so couldn’t Russia do the same? Right after South Korea decided to join in with Western sanctions, Russia declared the ROK to be an unfriendly country, although Russia has refrained from taking full-scale retaliatory measures, opting, among other things, to keep the ROK-Russia visa-free regime in place. Because South Korea does not depend on Russian crude oil or natural gas to a serious extent, there have been no urgent issues on that front up until now, and Russia has not suffered a serious shock due to the announced export controls on natural resources and strategic materials, yet it is difficult to guarantee that the list of prohibited items will not be expanded further. Recently Russia terminated its cooperation with Japan in the fishing industry, and has prohibited Japanese fishing boats from operating in its territorial waters. If Russia ends up cancelling cooperation with South Korea in the fishing industry, almost the entirety of the supply of pollack, for which people depend on Russia, will be jeopardized. What will happen if the supply of bituminous coal used in the construction industry’s cement production, which is entirely dependent on Russia for imports, is blocked? The three main Korean shipbuilding firms have contracts with Russian companies supplying LNG transport vessels totaling more than an estimated KRW seven trillion, isn’t there a risk those contracts could be canceled?

Do we really have no choice but to abide by the US’s demands regarding the situation in Ukraine under the guise of strengthening the ROK-US alliance? There is absolutely no legal connection between the situation in Ukraine and the South Korea-US alliance. As one official from the presidential office stated “President Yoon expects participating in the NATO summit to be an important opportunity for South Korea, as a key player, to expand its role in maintaining the international order based on values and norms, with the aim of strengthening cooperation with NATO allies and partner countries. This is very loose talk. Participating in the NATO summit will clearly place an extra burden on South Korea’s security. Word has it North Korea’s ambassador to Russia may travel to the conflict-ridden Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Russia has held back, but it’s possible they may supply North Korea with cutting-edge conventional weapons. Moving forward, Russia could abandon its role in fostering stability on the Korean Peninsula.

It has also been said that the Presidential Commision on Northern Economic Cooperation, which the Moon Jae-in administration had established to strengthen cooperation with the Eurasia region, including Russia, is being abolished. Regardless of whatever positive results the commission bore, its very existence had meaning for Russia. Looking at the spate of actions the new government has taken toward Russia, one cannot help but feel that the basis for the Russia policy in place since Roh Tae-woo has been continuously declining. Is Russia disappearing in South Korea’s diplomatic thinking? In September, the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, which both presidents Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in attended, will be held, and in November the G20 summit will take place in Bali, Indonesia. Is President Yoon not thinking at all about meeting President Putin in the future?

 

Original article by Park Byung-hwan, Director, Eurasian Strategy Research Institute. Translated by Anthony V. Rinna, translation edited by Christopher Green.

 

[1] Source: [Diplomacy in Brief] Is President Yoon Not Thinking of Meeting President Putin?[i] [외교 한마디] 윤 대통령은 푸틴 대통령을 만나지 않을 생각인가? Cheonji Ilbo, June 12, 2022, https://www.newscj.com/990918

 

[2] Translator’s note: Although the South Korean government and most media have, at the Ukrainian government’s request, begun using the Korean equivalent of “Kyiv”, the original article retained the Russian-based Korean spelling, which corresponds to “Kiev” in English, hence the use of the Russian-based spelling in this translation.

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