Palmerston in Seoul: South Korean Russia Hand Calls For Restraint Toward Moscow

By | November 01, 2022 | No Comments

Aligning with sections of the South Korea policy elite that call on Seoul to stake out an independent position between China and the US, Park Byung-hwan, a former Moscow-based ROK diplomat and Russia specialist whose analyses Sino-NK has covered before, warns that Seoul is squandering an opportunity to maintain decent ties with the Russian Federation. In his view, the Kremlin still acts favorably to an ROK it has officially designated as “unfriendly”, while all the same Seoul continues to lampoon Russia diplomatically. Offering a multi-faceted analysis of ROK-Russia ties in the context of diplomatic fallout over Ukraine, Park urges an approach to Russia based primarily on national interests, and expresses fears that if South Korean weapons sold to Central European countries end up in Ukrainian hands, this could ultimately derail a strategically important bilateral relationship. 

 

The War in Ukraine Must Not Become Ours[1]

At the annual Valdai Discussion Club conference in Moscow on October 27th, in response to a question about the North Korean nuclear issue from South Korean delegate Kim Heung-chong, (who serves as director of the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy), Russian president Vladimir Putin stated “I know South Korea is planning to supply weapons and ammunition to Ukraine, and this could destroy bilateral relations.” This remark has sent shockwaves toward South Korea. From the start of the Yoon Suk Yeol administration in May, there were predictions that the government may supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, yet presidential staff stated that this would not happen. Nevertheless, it has come to light that South Korea will sell weapons to Poland, a neighbor of Ukraine and a country hostile to Russia, prompting such concerns once again. Some media have assessed Putin to be “harassing” South Korea, so I hope to assess the context of Putin’s remarks as well as the reaction inside South Korea. 

So as to understand exactly what President Putin is saying, let me iterate: “We have very good relations with South Korea. We always stay open to chances to talk not just with South Korea but North Korea also. Yet we’ve come to learn that South Korea has decided to supply Ukraine (via Poland) with weapons and ammunition. This will ruin bilateral relations. If we were to cooperate with North Korea in this regard, how would South Korea react? Would South Korea be pleased with this?” Putin has stated that up until now, South Korea has not provided Ukraine with weapons, and has expressed his fears while asking South Korea to reconsider its position. In response to a journalist’s question on the matter, President Yoon declared “We will only provide Ukraine with humanitarian and peaceful support, we have been cooperating with the international community, and we have not supplied Ukraine with lethal aid. Nevertheless, this is a question of our sovereignty.” Yet if there are no plans to provide lethal aid in the future, he could simply have said “We haven’t supplied lethal aid and will not do so”, yet what is he trying to say by mentioning “sovereignty”? Do Putin’s remarks violate South Korea’s sovereignty? Or is he saying that while South Korea has not provided lethal aid up until now, this could change?  

President Putin spoke about the future, but President Yoon’s answer is about the past.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reaffirmed its position that it will not provide lethal aid to Ukraine, but then out of blue added “As for us, we are monitoring media reports that Russia may possibly buy weapons from North Korea.” What sort of serious effect would Russia buying weapons from North Korea have on Moscow-Seoul ties? Wouldn’t the case of Russia supplying weapons to North Korea be a problem? It seems the president’s answer, added unnecessarily to the foreign ministry’s statement, may cause problems. What is even more incomprehensible is that some media haven’t even noted this point. 

President Putin said, among other things “We have very good relations with South Korea“ – isn’t this rather unusual?  South Korea joined the West’s sanctions against Russia, and in retaliation Russia listed South Korea as an unfriendly country. As such, what does it mean that Russia has very good relations with South Korea? First of all, the visa-free regime implemented in 2014 is still in place, and the peoples of both countries come and go freely. Even after the situation erupted in Ukraine, with the exception of items prohibited on the South Korean side for export to Russia, trade with Russia has largely continued as it always has. 

In particular, Russia is even permitting trade with South Korea on a case-by-case basis for items banned from export to unfriendly countries. For example, Russia has made exceptions for exports of xenon and krypton, gases which are essential for the semiconductor industry, as well as equipment for radars and wireless networks. In the case of mobile phones and electronic appliances that Korean companies cannot export to Russia due to sanctions, Russia is allowing for circuitous exports through third countries. As a result, the volume of exports to Russia declined, but the volume of exports to countries bordering Russia such as Kazakhstan has skyrocketed. Furthermore, last August, Russia’s state-run Rosatom gave the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP) company KRW 3 trillion worth of work through a subcontract for some of the construction works at the El Dabaa nuclear power plant in Egypt, which were won by the original agency. Could it truly be that this was granted because only South Korea could do this sub-contracted construction? In contrast to other Western countries participating in sanctions against Russia, doesn’t this show that they want to keep decent relations with the ROK? 

How has South Korea responded to this consideration on Russia’s part? We have continually participated in the US and other Western countries’ economic sanctions against Russia, and explicitly joined the ranks of the anti-Russia camp by participating in the NATO summit in Madrid last May. Actually, almost all lines of discussion between the two countries have been ruptured. There is no way to know when negotiations over the establishment of an investment services FTA will restart. Every September Russia holds the Eastern Economic Forum to promote investment in the Russian Far East, and even this year government and business officials from around 60 countries, around seven thousand people in total, participated – this proves that many countries and firms want to cooperate with Russia in spite of the situation in Ukraine.  From South Korea’s end, former presidents have participated, and even this year a significant number of companies either currently doing business or interested in doing business with Russia participated, yet from the government end, only diplomatic personnel already in Vladivostok attended, and local media here in Korea didn’t even report on the forum.  

Participating in the development of the Russian Far East in the medium and long term does not simply have a purely economic meaning – it is also a question of strategic importance, so is it right to be indifferent to this?  In relation to the development of this region, Russia is expecting South Korean participation to help offset China’s encroachment into the region, yet it seems Russia is lowering its expectations and looking to India as an alternative. Furthermore, after Russia annexed occupied territories in late September, South Korea’s approval of the resolution at the emergency session at the UN condemning Russia’s measures was understandable, but was the South Korean ambassador’s strongly condemnatory remarks during the general session really necessary? Wasn’t the foreign ministry spokesperson’s statement that they didn’t recognize the annexation enough? In a word, the current government has put paid to its statement that it will work to maintain ties with Russia.  

As shown above, Russia continues to treat South Korea favorably, so rather than saying Russia has treated South Korea in a threatening manner, isn’t it the ROK that’s displayed a hostile attitude toward Russia? Is there really no basis for Putin’s remarks that “South Korea intends to supply weapons to Ukraine”? Would he say that based only on media reports, without seeing any sort of intelligence on the issue? Certainly, the ROK can claim that it is merely exporting weapons to Poland, not providing military support to Ukraine. Yet normally after defense materials export contracts are inked with the end user confimed, they are prohibited from reselling, providing or lending the purchased goods, and are only allowed to do so in the exceptional case that they’ve received prior permission to do so from the seller. Also, a clause stating the seller holds the buyer responsible in case this provision is violated is included.  In other words, if South Korea doesn’t include a clause in the contract prohibiting the transfer of weapons sold to Poland to third countries, they could end up in Ukraine. In this case, it is possible to assume the US has a hand in all this. 

Furthermore, in late September the Prague-based digital newspaper Idnes, citing a well-informed source, reported that South Korea planned to supply Ukraine with Shingung surface-to-air missiles and shells via the Czech Republic, with the total value reportedly amounting to three billion dollars. According to the source, the Czech defense industry planned to acquire Chiron (previously known as “Shingung”) surface-to-air missiles for use in helicopter-like low-flying attack aircraft with the goal of supplying them to Ukraine. Furthermore, the newspaper reports that “[t]he US is covering the cost of these military supplies”. In response to the report, Czech defense minister Jana Černochová stated “I will not comment on media reporting. The Czech Republic continues its overall support for Ukraine, yet the Czech government has stated on several occasions that it will not go into detail regarding military supplies to Ukraine.”

In this context, South Korea is not supplying weapons to Ukraine directly, yet one cannot help but have misgivings about whether or not such policies fail to take into account how South Korean-made weapons will be handled in the countries importing them. Of course, if South Korean-made weapons are found on the battlefield in Ukraine, this will ultimately reveal the truth. Until then, it is difficult to speak conclusively. Still, Russia’s fears are understandable. President Putin’s remarks show that he wants to keep up good relations with South Korea, while also demonstrating his fears that South Korea could undertake incautious measures that could destroy the relationship. President Yoon’s remarks only show that South Korea has not provided Ukraine with lethal military support up to this point, while evoking feelings of uncertainty over what may happen in the future on that front. What are South Korea’s interests in the situation in Ukraine? Or is he determined to do this because the US has called on us to participate in its comprehensive, global values-based alliance? 

How many people in South Korean society truly have an understanding of what brought about this situation in Ukraine? The international arena is not a battleground between the forces of good and evil, it is the place where national interests collide. However much people sympathize with Ukraine, it is ultimately their war, but at this rate if we mess up there is reason to fear that it could become our war as well. Some media covering Putin’s remarks are using expressions such as “menace” and “blackmail”, but in essence this betrays a sense of small country complex on South Korea’s part. If it is not true, it’s fine to say “Don’t worry needlessly” about it, so why the overreaction? Does it trouble your conscience? South Korea needs to approach the situation in Ukraine from a calculating perspective based on its interests. Without considering Russia-South Korea relations, if we are just blindly following US policy, it is a pathetic policy, and it is the US to which we should be directing our demands. South Korea’s KHNP has reportedly been pushed in bidding for a nuclear power plant in Poland by the US. 

As with relations between two people, relations between two countries are hard to restore once they are broken. In 2016, China lashed out fiercely at South Korea for installing THAAD; China viewed South Korea’s sovereign action of installing defensive weapons for the sake of its own territorial security as an act of hostility, and it doesn’t make sense to get into a fight. By the same token, South Korea in any way providing lethal military aid to Ukraine will be an act of hostility toward Russia. It’s possible Putin will take part in the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia in mid-November 11, and if President Yoon truly wants to maintain ties with Russia, I look forward to helping to push for a meeting. 

 

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

 

[1] Source: The War in Ukraine Must Not Become Ours [우크라이나 전쟁이 우리의 전쟁이 되어선 안 된다], Pressian, October 30, 2022, https://www.pressian.com/pages/articles/2022103018373245272

 

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