One Year On: A South Korean Perspective On The Post-2022 International Order
A single year is hardly a sufficient period of time to gauge the extent to which Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine will shape the shifting global order. One South Korean academic, however, sees five challenges that the ROK must navigate amid this period of uncertainty, drawing upon lessons from both ancient history and the early modern history of Northeast Asia to help readers understand the stakes that Seoul currently faces.
The Russia-Ukraine War: Five Challenges That South Korea Faces 
– The war in Ukraine, defying expectations, has turned into a protracted conflict reshaping the global order.
– The “Russia vs. US” binary reduces diplomatic maneuverability, with no vision for ROK-Russia relations.
[Editorial note] This month marks one year since the war in Ukraine broke out. The war in Ukraine has been a gut punch on top of the pandemic and global inflation, and the increasing alignment between China and Russia is bringing the world into a New Cold War-type arrangement in international relations. The war in Ukraine has prompted an increase in military spending across the world, with significant implications for South Korean defense companies. Below, News1 publishes its 7th analysis of how the war in Ukraine affects the global order and its implications for South Korea.
It’s been more than 11 months since Russia invaded Ukraine. In contrast to expectations that Russia would gain a victory in short order, this war has turned into a protracted war where Russia, which has been replenishing its forces, annexed a chunk of Ukrainian territory about half the size of the Korean Peninsula in late September, while Ukraine continues fight for its survival against all odds with the help of large-scale Western support, including from the United States.
It has become clear that this war is essentially a war between a United States that wishes to block the emergence of regional hegemons so as to preserve the “unipolar moment”, and a Russian Federation that wishes to position itself as a regional hegemon so as to create a multipolar global order.
New International Order: A Transitional Period
The Russia-Ukraine War is destroying the basic underpinnings of the post-Cold War system in place for 30-odd years, of which the US has remained the primary driver. Despite the fact that it remains unclear how this war will end, some say that a depletion of Russia’s military forces will allow China and the US to form their own axes, while others emphasize the possibility that China, the US and a few other powerful countries can devise and lead a multipolar world order. Yet other experts point to evidence of an “anarchical” international order.
It is clear that the global order is changing. Yet it seems that the world has yet to find a place between a “new Cold War” in which the world is divided into two camps with countries cooperating with two superpowers, and a “multipolar order” in which several powers maintain strategic autonomy while repeating their concerted efforts aimed at cooperation or conflict depending on the issue. This transition being brought about on the battlefields of Ukraine presents new challenges for Korea even at a distance of several thousand kilometers.
South Korea’s shrinking diplomatic maneuverability and the crisis in Russia-South Korea relations
First, South Korea is losing its diplomatic maneuverability. For the past 30 years or so, regardless of administration, South Korea has been working to reduce the structure of hostile relations in Northeast Asia between the three countries in the north (North Korea, China and Russia) and the three countries in the south (South Korea, the US and Japan). Yet because of the Russia-Ukraine War, in Northeast Asia, China and Russia’s conflicts with the US and Japan are getting worse, making South Korea’s ability to navigate this state of affairs more difficult.
Second, South Korea is facing a crisis in its relations with Russia. The level of South Korea’s sanctions against Russia has risen, and Russia has declared the ROK to be a so-called “unfriendly country”, which has led to a freezing in ROK-Russia relations. On top of this, President Vladimir Putin warned in no uncertain terms on October 27th that weapons transfers from the ROK to Ukraine would destroy Moscow-Seoul relations. Yet Russia is not merely geographically adjacent to Korea; we must not forget that it is a country that is influential in resolving the Korean Peninsula’s most pressing issues, including denuclearization and unification.
There are long-term opportunities in Russia-South Korea relations to be had from a change in the international order. Russia’s relations with the US’s main Northeast Asian ally Japan have broken down, and because of worries over excessive dependence on China, Russia still wants to secure economic cooperation with the ROK. The space for maneuverability will narrow, but South Korea needs to search for ways to prepare to develop relations with Russia in various areas.
No real possibility of North Korean denuclearization and the limits of the Korean Peninsula peace process
Third, there is no now longer any real possibility that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons. With no real will on China or Russia’s part to see the DPRK denuclearize North Korea may leverage changes in the global order and, while continuing to develop its nuclear weapons and missile programs, attempt to enact an arms control regime directly with the United States. As such, North Korea’s status as a nuclear state is now a “reality”, and it is possible that there is a need for an alternative to the Korean peace process.
Fourth, it is clear that there are limits to implementing a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula through economic cooperation. Russia and Ukraine had maintained reciprocal relations in various aspects of economic relations including trade and investment, yet ultimately war became inevitable. With this in mind, it becomes clear that no matter how much North and South Korea cooperate economically, if the dilemma on the Korean Peninsula is not solved, war can break out at any time.
Two discourses: balancing-act diplomacy vs. alliance-oriented diplomacy
Fifth, as we now live in a so-called “Age of Barbarism”, the idea of “balanced diplomacy” has increasingly given way to a more “alliance-oriented” view of foreign affairs. An alliance-oriented foreign policy would seek to prevent war through deterrence, while a balanced foreign policy would seek to prevent war through diplomacy. As such, for both the DPRK and the ROK, which inevitably have to defend themselves, a balance between both lines of thinking is essential for the prevention of war.
Joseon emerged victorious in the Imjin War of the late 16th century, yet we as Koreans don’t remember this as a war that we won. Inter-Korean conflict is not a war that we win, but one that we strive to prevent from flaring up again.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Joseon couldn’t properly discern how the order in Northeast Asia was shifting, and was forced to undergo two major crises. One ended in a Pyrrhic Victory, and the other ended in surrender. History may repeat itself, but mistakes must never be made.
Original article by Jeh Sung Hoon, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. Translated by Anthony V. Rinna