Flex, Policymaking Style: South Korea in a New Cold War

By | July 31, 2022 | No Comments

Among the contemporary youth of South Korea, the English word “flex” has come into increasing usage to connote showing off one’s skills or otherwise taking pride in one’s achievements.

For policy analysts in Seoul, however, the idea of “flexibility” has taken on a much more serious connotation, namely in terms of how to navigate a post-2022 order in a way that puts the ROK’s interests first.

The latest heavy-hitter in South Korean foreign policy analysis to call for Seoul to adopt a dexterous stance amid great power competition in Kim Joo-hyung, former chancellor of the South Korean National Diplomatic Academy and an established alternative voice to the pro-US path dependency that dominates policy thinking in the ROK. 


Former National Diplomatic Academy Chancellor: Russia-Ukraine compromise possible this winter given US inflation, Incheon Today, July 26, 2022[1]

Kim Joon-hyung, past chancellor of the National Diplomatic Academy, invited speaker at second session, Incheon lecture

“Fears of a pro-Western western Ukraine and a pro-Moscow eastern Ukraine”

If inflation gets much worse, US and NATO may offer talks

Avoid getting caught up in great power polarity, pursue tangible interests


Incheon Today, Kim Ji-moon | “The Russia-Ukraine War has reached a standstill. Now both countries have ended up in a state not unlike the latter period of the Korean War where both sides are dug in experiencing repeated ebbs and flows. Winter is coming, and with the prices of fuel and foodstuffs rising, the US will have no choice but to play the negotiation card.”

At 7 pm this past July 21 at the Incheon Social Welfare Center, the Incheon Network for Peace and Welfare and the Movement for One Korea invited Handong University professor Kim Joo-hyung (former chancellor of the National Diplomatic Academy) to deliver a lecture for A World of Strife , the New Administration and a Solution for Korean Peace.


Chances of overpowering Russia are slim

The Russia-Ukraine war broke out last February 24 when Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a “special military operation” in the greater Donbas region of eastern Ukraine in support of pro-Russian rebel forces.

Prior to this, the regions of eastern Ukraine heavily populated with Russian-speakers declared independence from Kyiv with Russian support, making the eastern part of Ukraine a conflict zone for the past eight years.

As Professor Kim stated, “Anti-war or progressive forces would prefer the collapse of Putin’s government, but the most likely outcome will be the division of Ukraine into eastern and western halves.”

Professor Kim argued that rather than taking over Ukraine as a whole, Putin’s motive was the establishment of pro-Russian independent republics in the conflict zone of eastern Ukraine.

Rather than have a member of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) on its border and contend with having such military force in proximity, it’s more likely Russia will seek to divide Ukraine into eastern and western parts so as to create a buffer zone.

Furthermore, Professor Kim alluded to similarities between the Russia-Ukraine war and the Korean War. According to Professor Kim “Most of the battle lines were drawn in the early stages of the Korean War. Toward the end of the war there were no major shifts in combat lines. Both sides were dug in with small advances and reverses, negotiating for an end of the conflict. Today the Russia-Ukraine war is following a similar trajectory.

Following up with his remarks, Professor Kim added “NATO members are actively providing Ukraine with weapons, but the battle lines have barely moved and the body count continues to increase. What’s happening in Ukraine is a shame, yet holding talks is the right thing to do.”


“This year, if inflation gets worse, the US and NATO may be open to compromise”

Professor Kim pointed out a change in discourse among the US and NATO member states. Professor Kim insisted that voters in the EU are experiencing fatigue over the ongoing conflict, while the US – the world’s self-proclaimed policeman – would enter into negotiations from a position of reduced influence.

Western media have collectively slammed Russia, yet the countries providing weapons to Ukraine are a minority. Among 193 UN member states, only 141 countries participating in the UN General Assembly condemned Russia.

Among these, 48 have laid sanctions against Moscow, and 31 are providing weapons support. South Korea has not provided lethal support to Ukraine. However, the ROK has participated in sanctions against Russia, and has provided non-lethal military aid to Ukraine. 

Furthermore, last February the US inserted around 10,000 more troops to Germany and Poland. Yet it seems the US remains lukewarm to providing direct support to Ukraine.

Amidst the stagnation on the battlefield, US President Joe Biden hinted at the prospects of negotiations for the first time in a New York Times editorial.

In a May 31 article Joe Biden penned for the New York Times, he stated that “[s]o long as the United States of our Allie’s are not attacked, we will not be directly engaged in this conflict, either by sending American troops to Ukraine or by attacking Russian forces.”

He continued to assert that the “United States will continue to work to strengthen Ukraine, and support its efforts to achieve a negotiated end to the conflict”. It was the first time Biden spoke of negotiations since the war broke out. 

As Professor Kim stated “The May 31 New York Times editorial was the first time President Biden used the term ‘negotiate’. The US is grappling with serious inflation at the moment, and with fears that the prices of fuel and foodstuffs will rise even further, it’s increasingly likely both sides may encourage talks at the negotiation table.”

In reality, according to publicly-available materials from the US Department of Agriculture published last June, the price of consumer goods in the US rose 9.1% compared with the same period last year. Among these, the price of groceries rose 10.2%, while the price of fuel rose a whopping 59.9%. This indicates that the Russia-Ukraine war and the attendant effects on the global prices of agricultural products and fuel has had a serious knock-on effect on the American market, too.

Yet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is set against talks. Last May 25, President Zelensky said “People who propose Ukraine should give up its territory and end the war with Russia are no different from those who allowed the Nazis to take the part of Czechoslovakia in light of the ‘Munich Agreement’ aimed at preventing war in Europe”, showing a resolve to recover lost territory.[2]

Professor Kim insisted that the US and NATO need to foster conditions conducive to negotiations. He added “If NATO provides Ukraine security guarantees in case of another Russian invasion, and if the US offers to provide financial support for Ukraine’s postwar reconstruction, Ukraine may also engage in negotiations.”


“Policymakers’ reckless anti-Russia, anti-China obsession… need flexible foreign policy with real benefits”

Professor Kim expressed fears that “Some irresponsible Western policymakers are pushing for diplomacy based on obsessive anti-Russia/anti-China sentiment, and if South Korea views this in terms of an exaggerated “new Cold War” structure, it can be detrimental to our national interests.”

Some politicians advocate for a New Cold War, and their supporters are increasing in number, yet in reality the US and its allies, as well as Russia and China, are all economically interconnected, and Professor Kim insisted that it’s difficult to conduct a foreign policy based on the logic of rival camps.

Countries that stand out as cases-in-point of states that managed to avoid the trap of aligning with one camp or another amid the Russia-Ukraine war include India, Indonesia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

India has not participated in anti-Russia sanctions during the Russia-Ukraine war. Furthermore, in maintaining amicable ties with Russia, at a time when oil prices have risen in excess of $100 per barrel, India has been able to secure a supply of oil for itself from Russia for $35 per barrel, among other benefits.

Indonesia has signed on to the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy by joining Japan’s efforts to contain China. Yet the country has demonstrated a flexible foreign policy by hosting both Putin and Zelensky to the G20 summit this year, which Indonesia will host.

Turkey has officially come out in support of Ukraine in its war with Russia, sanctioning Russia by cutting off access to the Black Sea. Yet Russia is still making profits on the sale of grains through intermediary sales.

Saudi Arabia, well-known for its pro-US orientation, has likewise been in contact with Russia over stabilizing oil prices, conducting a flexible foreign policy amidst great power clashes.

According to Professor Kim “Even though South Korea has participated in anti-Russia sanctions, it has still maintained cordial relations with the Russian Federation. A whopping 95% of Russians have a favorable view of South Korea. While participating in sanctions against Russia as currently stand, we cannot cross over into directing selling Ukraine offensive weapons or other such hard-edged forms of support” he insisted.

“Even if sanctions only stay at their current level, without doing any damage, the Yoon Seok Yeol administration, without any clear benefit, participated in the NATO summit. Nobody has demanded this, but this is a case of the great powers using shock troops in their proxy war for hegemony. We now need a flexible stance” he added.


Original article by Kim Ji-moon. Translated by Anthony V. Rinna.


[1] Source: Former National Diplomatic Academy Chancellor: Russia-Ukraine compromise possible this winter given US inflation (전 국립외교원장, “미국 고인플레… 러-우 전쟁 가을협상 전망”), Incheon Today, July 26, 2022, https://www.incheontoday.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=220266


[2] Translator’s note: This does not appear to be a direct quotation of Volodymyr Zelensky’s remarks, but a somewhat more elaborate paraphrasing, based on the official English text of Zelensky’s remarks in reference to 1938 delivered on May 25, 2022. Further reference: https://www.president.gov.ua/en/news/ti-hto-radit-ukrayini-viddati-rosiyi-teritoriyi-ne-hochut-ba-75377

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