Always on the receiving end
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
In a rebuke to the U.S.-led UN Security Council resolution denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demanding Moscow withdraw all troops, India and the United Arab Emirates — considered friendly to the United States — joined China in abstaining from the vote, which was vetoed by Russia. The move by New Delhi came as a surprise as it was out of sync with three other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) — the U.S., Australia and Japan. The episode suggests that many countries do not agree on condemning and sanctioning Russia.
International politics cannot be explained in black and white. Washington partly shares the responsibility for Moscow’s resort to aggression against Ukraine. During the Malta summit in December 1989, U.S. President George H.W. Bush assured Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that America would not take advantage of the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November and the revolutions in Eastern Europe to harm Russia’s interests. The promise was followed by U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s famous “not one inch eastward” assurance about NATO expansion in his meeting with Gorbachev on February 9, 1990. But U.S. President Joe Biden recently said the NATO will maintain its “open door” to European states that share its values, provoking Moscow, which has been worried about NATO enlisting countries around its borders. Another factor involved was America’s ambiguity. While lambasting Russian military movements, the U.S. said it would not interfere in Ukraine affairs in military terms — to more or less condone its invasion.
As a result, there is some speculation that the U.S. intentionally provoked the Russian aggression to help regain its influence over the 30-member military alliance that had been watered down during Donald Trump’s time in power. European countries also would have to turn to U.S. gas if Russia’s gas pipelines to Europe are cut off.
Russia cannot be excused for invading a sovereign state. Yet that does not make Russia the devil and the U.S. an angel. What matters for South Korea is its own national interests. Under pressure from Washington, Seoul agreed to join the U.S.-led sanctions on Russia. But Korea and Russia are not enemies. The two have kept up a “strategic cooperative partnership” — the highest level of diplomatic relations before an alliance. Their bilateral trade, which stood at $200 million in 1990 when the two countries normalized diplomatic relations, surged to $27.3 billion last year. In 2019, before the Covid-19 outbreak, as many as 700,000 people traveled from one country to the other every year.
U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, right, addresses the United Nations Security Council on the situation between Russia and Ukraine, as Britain’s Foreign Minister James Cleverly listens, on February 17. [AP/YONHAP]
Sanctions will jeopardize various projects Korean governments pursued with Russia since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1990. Once international sanctions become effective, projects in Siberia and the trans-continental Eurasia railway will have to be suspended.
Seoul will lose Moscow’s support in inter-Korean relations. Like China, Russia could use North Korea as leverage against the U.S. South Korean businesses in Russia will be hurt. Last year, Russia was South Korea’s 10th largest trade partner. Exports totaled $9.9 billion, accounting for 1.6 percent of Korea’s total outbound shipments. Of them, 40 percent are finished cars and their parts. The U.S. has far less to worry about. Russia is its 26th largest trade partner. U.S.-led sanctions will hurt Korean companies more than U.S. companies. The government under former conservative President Park Geun-hye did not join sanctions against Russia in 2014 when it annexed the Crimean Peninsula.
The Moon Jae-in administration probably had to join the sanctions due to the alliance with Washington. Korea suffers when the global powers clash. After the deployment of the U.S. Thaad antimissile system here, Korean businesses suffered from a Beijing-led economic boycott. The U.S. never attempted to talk Beijing out of that retaliatory action. Korean companies suffered a lot from the U.S.-led sanctions on China on technology exports since 2018. South Korea ask the U.S. for compensation for the damages felt be Korean enterprises. The alliance with Uncle Sam must serve national interests, after all. An alliance will be strained if one party must sacrifice all the time.