Faded Sunshine From Kyiv to Korea

By | April 10, 2023 | No Comments

Yoon Suk Yeol’s upcoming visit to the US will place Washington in a prime position to push the ROK toward providing Ukraine with lethal military hardware. Min Gyesik, who has been highly active in South Korea’s academic, business and civil society communities, argues that post-Cold War attempts to engage China and Russia around the time of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy were all part of a failed macro-level effort to bring the former Communist bloc into the liberal world order. Seeing an historic thread connecting the ROK’s Korean War-era foes to current realities, he argues that Seoul needs to step up its support for Ukraine as part of what he sees as a global fight for the future of liberal democracy itself.


The Ukraine War and South Korea’s Choice[1]

With the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD) unanimous resolution in July 2021 that South Korea is a “developed country”, the ROK has taken its place squarely within the ranks of the world’s developed nations.

What counts as a developed country? I believe that it is a “country that has achieved a harmonious balance between both high material and spiritual standards, that has received recognition from the international community for consistently holding to these values and worldview, and that cooperates with other countries that share these values.”

I adhere to the values and national identity of a “liberal democratic republic, by the people”, and I view South Korea’s national identity in this same manner.

According to the UN Statistical Yearbook, the Korean War that wracked the Korean Peninsula over 70 years ago was the fourth-most savage in human history. During the three-year war, the death rate reached over 4.4 million, and both North and South Korea sustained unspeakable damage. Nevertheless, unique in the course of human history, 16 countries including the US, the UK, Canada and Türkiye took part in combat operations, while six provided medical support, and another 38 countries provided material support. These 60 countries helped repel the Communist camp’s invasion. During the Korean War and the Cold War, South Korea’s main enemies were North Korea, the Soviet Union and Communist China.

After the fall and breakup of the USSR, the West attempted to embrace the members of the former Communist bloc and establish a new global order. One could say that there were three Sunshine Policy-type engagements at this time: the US’s engagement with China, South Korea’s Sunshine Policy toward the DPRK and Europe’s efforts to court Russia. However, all these Sunshine Policy-type engagements over the past three decades have failed. In his own retrospective writings, Henry Kissinger has noted how the US misread China as being open to change, while noting that China has never, throughout history, related to any other country on an equal footing.

South Korea, the US and Europe’s Sunshine Policy-type engagements have failed miserably, and a New Cold War is upon us. The direct causes of the New Cold War can be traced back to China’s expansionist policy and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but in essence it is an ideological conflict between liberal democracy and socialism. The Communist bloc’s principal countries are still Russia, China and North Korea.

The war in Ukraine is not a solely European war. If Ukraine wins, it can provide a boost of energy to a new international order centered on liberal democracy, but if Vladimir Putin wins, the liberal order that has dominated for over 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall will end, and crisis will befall East Asia and the Korean Peninsula as well. In other words, the war in Ukraine has a direct bearing on East Asian and Korean security.

The Yoon Suk Yeol administration has supported Ukraine in its struggle for freedom, sending medical supplies and ambulances, trucks, generators and excavators among other items to the tune of 10 billion dollars. He has promised to continue with more aid, but has drawn the line at providing weapons. It seems the reason for this is a misjudgment of Russia (or a “fear-based exaggeration”). In order to understand South Korea’s choices, let’s briefly look at its relations with China, Russia and the US.

Having bordered China throughout history, Korea has, while living under the influence of the so-called “Chinese cultural sphere” been subjected to all sorts of suffering and humiliation at China’s hands, although today South Korea has practically broken away from the Chinese cultural sphere. People under 50 have no knowledge of hanja or its cultural underpinnings. According to one media opinion survey, more than 70% of young people selected China as the country they hate the most.

South Korea wants unification, but China does not have the power to help, and in any case is not willing to help, only hinder. Many in the ROK expect to cooperate with Russia so that the North Korean nuclear issue can be resolved through the Six Party Talks, but this is a delusion. Russia already withdrew from the Six Party Talks, and in any case is enabling North Korea.

Let’s take the case of Finland. As the European country that shares the longest border with Russia running 1,340 kilometers, Finland labored as an official colony of Russia, and in 1939, right before the outbreak of WWII lost 10% of its territory to the Soviet Union in an invasion. However, Finland broke with its more than 70-year-long policy of neutrality following WWII and made a shocking bid to join NATO – after Türkiye’s ratification, it became NATO’s 31st member state late last month.

Even before joining NATO, Finland was solidly supporting Ukraine with weapons supplies.  There are some who fear that if South Korea supplies Ukraine with weapons that the ROK could suffer economic retaliation, yet, seeing as South Korea’s trade with Russia accounts for 2.2% of the ROK’s total foreign trade, Moscow has a minimal ability to inflict such pain.

What about South Korea’s relationship with the US? Donald Trump put stress on the alliance over burden-sharing fees for US troops stationed in Korea and acted like a maverick from the popular TV series I Live Alone; however, Joe Biden is pushing ahead with an “alliance mobilization strategy.” This means that South Korea, as a solid ally of the United States, has no wiggle room. Therefore, South Korea cannot remain in an equivocal and strategically ambiguous position of balancing strong security ties with the US and deep economic ties with China – it must break out of this situation. We must not only not forget how 60 Western and Western-aligned countries helped us during the Korean War, but also strengthen alliances and partnerships with countries in the liberal democratic camp.

South Korea’s main foes today are the same ones as during the Cold War of yesteryear. Nothing has changed over 70-odd years, and it will be the same in the future. Having been elevated to the status of a developed country, if the ROK exercises leadership like a developed country in cooperation with countries that share such values, Seoul’s international standing will change mightily. South Korea needs to supply Ukraine with weapons. I expect President Yoon’s state visit to the US later this month to be an opportunity for Seoul to demonstrate its resolve in this regard. 


Original article by Min Gyesik. Translated by Anthony V. Rinna.


[1] Source: The Ukraine War and South Korea’s Choice [우크라이나 전쟁과 우리의 선택], Seoul Economy News, April 6, 2023, http://www.seouleconews.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=71451


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