Three Realisms: China, Japan and South Korea’s Differing Approaches to Ukraine

By | April 17, 2023 | No Comments

Writing for Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, Ko Sangtu of Yonsei University argues that Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo are approaching the war in Ukraine from differing strands of an overall realist perspective. These approaches, he argues, could affect the way the three countries formulate their responses to the next major potential flashpoint: Taiwan. Here, Sino-NK is pleased to provide our busy readers with a translated review containing the most salient points of Ko’s longer analysis.

Differing attitudes between China, Japan and South Korea towards the war in Ukraine – “Seoul needs an intermediary role”[1]

Intra-regional attitudes toward the war in Ukraine have generally been similar within most regions of the world, yet within Northeast Asia, China, Japan and South Korea have clearly displayed mutually differing responses.

Ko Sangtu, a professor at Yonsei University’s Area Studies program offered an analysis of the differences in China, Japan and South Korea’s approaches to the war in Ukraine in “The Ukraine War and Changes in Northeast Asia’s Political Landscape [우크라이나 전쟁과 동북아 정치지형의 변화]” for “The Ukraine War’s Present and Future” by Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies.

“China says through its official position that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is due to the US’s expansion of NATO and policy of pressuring Moscow. Japan is actively participating in Western sanctions. South Korea is passively participating in sanctions” Professor Ko wrote. 

“In Northeast Asia, realism is the mainstream perspective through which countries determine their relations with one another, and is the factor that decides their foreign policies. Through the Ukraine War, this realist perspective is becoming more apparent and is gaining strength” according to Professor Ko. 

With that, however, Professor Ko distinguished between “different features of China, Japan and South Korea’s respective foreign policies that appear upon closer inspection: South Korea’s mercantilist realism, Japan’s liberal realism and China’s hegemonic realism.”

Differences appearing between Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo over Ukraine-related issues

Ko Sangtu took a look at the attitudes of the three countries in relation to issues related to Ukraine. 

  • On the question of sanctions against Russia:

“Japan is actively participating in sanctions against Russia and has implemented its own unilateral sanctions as well. South Korea, having assessed Russia to be of economic importance, have taken a passive attitude toward sanctions. China views the Ukraine War through a great power conflict lens, and holds the US responsible for the war” writes Ko.

  • On the question of support for Ukraine:

“Japan is the Northeast Asian country that supports Ukraine the most. Most of the 1.5 billion dollars of aid provided has been financial in nature. South Korea has provided a total of one hundred million dollars earmarked for humanitarian aid. China has also provided humanitarian aid, although considerably less that South Korea” Professor Ko noted.

  • On the Taiwan issue:

The possibility has arisen, following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, that Taiwan issue could quickly emerge as an issue, and that China may annex it through military means. Professor Ko believes that “China views Taiwan and Ukraine differently, and that Beijing believes that there are both foreign and domestic policy justifications for annexing Taiwan.”

“The US government is asking directly and indirectly for allies to clarify their position on support for Taiwan, and because Taiwan has an important strategic value for Japan’s economic value chain and maritime routes, Tokyo has declared that they will intervene in the event of a contingency” according to Professor Ko.

“South Korea has not outlined an official position on what it will do in the case of an intervention in Taiwan, but is in a place where it would be flexible about US Forces Korea being deployed in a contingency on Taiwan” he surmised.

“Trust between Russia and South Korea remains”

Professor Ko sees “[t]he war in Ukraine hardening the realist perspective in Northeast Asia”, with the serious possibility that cooperation between China, Japan and South Korea could transform into competition or conflict. 

He predicted that if Northeast Asia “becomes an arena of geopolitical competition, South Korea will lose greatly on the gains it has made from globalization and regionalization.”

Professor Ko assessed that “While a sense of crisis over Taiwan grows after the invasion of Ukraine, crisis management on the Korean Peninsula is also important for South Korea, yet it has come to a point where the ROK will have to actively respond to a crisis in Taiwan.

As such, he opined, “South Korea needs an export market policy that gradually reduces dependence on China, while actively pursuing intermediary diplomacy aimed at preventing a crisis over Taiwan.”

He also emphasized that “Intermediary diplomacy for an end to the Ukraine war in its early stage is necessary.”

“Although Russia has labeled countries that participate in anti-Russian sanctions as ‘unfriendly countries’, South Korea remains an exception in that trust remains between Moscow and Seoul. This means there is a possibility that South Korea can play an intermediary role” in his view.

“China feels the need for regional hegemony, and the possibility that countries that cooperated closely with Russia will enter the Chinese camp has become high” Professor Ko wrote. 

He added that “The Belt and Road can move beyond economic cooperation, and can develop into a platform for political and security cooperation.”

Professor Ko also pointed out that “As the South Korean government has given up on the New Northern Policy and has started moving toward an Indo-Pacific strategy, there is a risk of eroding the cooperative relationships Seoul has built up across Eurasia over the past 30 years.”

Original article by Park Ji-hyun. Translated by Anthony V. Rinna


[1] Source: “[Review] Differing attitudes between China, Japan and South Korea towards the war in Ukraine – “Seoul needs an intermediary role” ([리뷰] 한중일, 우크라이나 전쟁에 각각 다른 태도…”한국, 중재자 역할 해야”), SPNews April 17, 2023,



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