Identical Twins at Eurasia’s Wingtips: Ukraine’s Diplomatic Lessons for South Korea

By | July 25, 2022 | No Comments

Former ROK presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung’s roundly-condemned remarks seen as blaming Ukraine for its entanglement in a war with Russia may not have helped him win the election, but skepticism toward overt South Korean support for the West is still alive and well among the ROK’s elite commentariat. Here, academic Hong Wan-suk of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies cautions that explicit support for Washington may not be in Seoul’s best interests, based on parallels that he sees between Ukraine and Korea’s respective situations.


Ukraine – lessons for South Korean diplomacy (an essay), The Seoul Shinmun, July 11, 2022[1]


Main lesson from the Ukraine war – a warning that we need to emphasize our own strength in the New Cold War, seismic shifts in the postwar international order mean we need to confront the delusion of a “values-based alliance” and choose our geopolitical orientation.


In what seems to be a protracted conflict in Ukraine, there are resemblances to the Korean War of 72 years prior. Both wars broke out on geopolitical fault lines where great powers had vested interests. Furthermore, both were civil wars that ended up becoming wider international conflicts. Both are also internecine conflicts with blood shed on the altar of great power politics. There are also parallels with the fact that Ukraine’s southeast has been broken off from the rest of the country while the prospects of an endless cycle of conflict remain high.


Indeed, the parallels don’t stop there. During the Korean War it was the Soviet Union waging a proxy war against the US, now the US is waging a proxy war against Russia by way of Ukraine, holding the outbreak of WWIII in check. It has become cliche to say that this war comprises a watershed that has brought about a seismic shift in the post-1945 international order. If the Korean War, started with Soviet backing, was the opening act of the Cold War, the war in Ukraine, launched with China’s blessing, tells us that the Sino-US new Cold War is in full swing. This is why American strategist Matthew Pottinger has called the war in Ukraine a second Korean War.


Ukraine, being located in Europe, is geographically distant from Korea yet the two countries face very similar geopolitical environments, making them akin to identical twins. The Crimean Peninsula and the Korean Peninsula are both strategically-located collision points for continental and maritime powers. Both countries are so-called “middle powers” trapped between global great powers, and are geopolitical “pivot states” on the eastern and western wings of the Eurasian landmass capable of shaping the spectrum of the hegemons’ power. They both also share a position where choosing one axis over the other will have a decisive effect on their diplomatic fate. Ukraine, caught up in various forms of the Russia-US power struggle, is being urged to make something of a zero-sum choice, while South Korea is facing difficulties aligning itself diplomatically between the Chinese and American diplomatic poles. In that sense, we can’t just sit there and watch what’s happening in Ukraine indifferently.


I’d like to point out two major lessons about the current situation related to the war in Ukraine. While the importance of our alliance with the US goes without saying, one lesson is the need to emphasize self-reliance. It has become abundantly clear that when Ukraine lacks independent military and diplomatic capabilities, this geopolitically strategic area becomes a battleground for great powers. Korea knows this hard-hitting reality about international politics from its own unique experience all too well. Relevant examples of Korea being turned into a battle space for great powers include the First Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, the division of the Korean Peninsula at the hands of the United States and the USSR, and the Korean War. This isn’t to blame foreign powers for their repeated violations in Korea’s checkered past, as there are internal reasons too. By falling into a trap of free-riding, dependence, and servility before powerful nations[2], a country that is actually wealthy and militarily powerful will fail to put forth efforts at strengthening its own security capabilities. This is why South Korea, invariably caught between the concert of global great powers – China, Russia and the United States – must not fail to increase its economic prowess, stay on the cutting edge of military capabilities, and seek a position as a cultural powerhouse amid globalization. 


The most important issue facing us today is fostering flexible yet practical diplomacy that emphasizes our national interest. Values must not take precedence over interests, and interests must likewise never be placed above survival. It seems as if the Zelensky administration in Ukraine is showing that in a geopolitical space where Russian and US vital strategic interests intersect, a crisis has arisen where a clear pro-Western and anti-Russia path has led to a state of affairs where territory has been carved up, innocent people are being killed and national survival is at stake. South Korea, caught between the fierce Sino-US as well as Russia-US confrontations can also see that this is an applicable lesson.


In light of the geopolitical fate linked to ROK-US, China-ROK or Russia-South Korea ties, there is no way that a single-vector or camp diplomacy-type of unilateral thinking can be advantageous for South Korea’s national interest or security. South Korea must base its diplomatic orientation on thoroughly objective realities, and that orientation must become the basis of our diplomacy founded on detached national interest. Particularly if we continually fail to confront the delusion of a values-based alliance that serves the interests of great powers, it could lead to an unbearable situation. The economic crisis with the worst trade deficit on record in 66 years is already sending warning signs.


Original essay by Hong Wan-suk, Graduate School of International and Area Studies, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. Translated by Anthony V. Rinna.



[1] Source Ukraine – lessons for South Korean diplomacy (an essay) ([시론] 우크라이나, 한국 외교의 반면교사), The Seoul Shinmum, July 11, 2022,

[2] Translator’s note: rendered in the original text as sadae (사대), an historic term used to describe the Joseon Dynasty’s relationship with the Ming and Qing dynasties in China, and occasionally used today in Korean discourse on relations with China and the United States today.

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