Ukraine and Korea

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Ukraine and Korea

Kim Byung-yeon

The author is an economics professor and head of the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. 
In 1994, I took a train from Moscow to Simferopol, now the capital city of the Republic of Crimea. I was headed for Yalta, which had hosted the conference of the big three — President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States, Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Britain and Premier Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union — who agreed on a four-power trusteeship for Korea as part of a plan to end World War II.

The trip was boisterous. The three roommates in the train compartment — a Russian, a Ukrainian, and a Ukraine-born Russian — argued over who should govern the Crimean Peninsula. A passenger in the next compartment later joined the argument. I was pulled in to referee as a third party regardless of my will. I had to learn the history of the peninsula and the geopolitical complexity of it during the 25-hour trip.

The lives in Yalta were hard. At that time, Ukraine’s per capita income stood at $1,000, down 40 percent from when it was a part of the Soviet Union, and the income was half what Russians earned. In the guesthouse I stayed at — and in other homes in the resort city — water was supplied just for an hour a day. The hostess who sold a carrot dish at the market had to survive on $10 with her family. I could understand why the ethnic Ukrainians with Russian citizenship insisted the peninsula should go back to Russia.

Ukraine’s tragedy stems from its dilly-dallying in nation building. The massive Orange Revolution in 2004 came too late. The fissures over the 20 years from the Soviet collapse ran too deep. Corrupt politicians colluded with elites to form an oligarchy that delayed a transition to the market economy. Economic hardship fueled social conflict and political insecurity to worsen the economy. Meanwhile, other former Soviet republics — East European and Baltic countries — combated economic difficulties through a fast transition and united their countries. Ukraine lagged even Russia introducing capitalism.

The laggard economy was the biggest reason behind Ukraine’s failure in nation rebuilding. No economy retreated so badly like Ukraine’s in peacetime. Real national income fell more than 60 percent over the 10 years from the late Soviet period. Despite a mild improvement, income levels are halved from 1989. While a Soviet republic, household income in Ukraine was 85 percent of that in Russia. Now it is less than 40 percent. Russians, who made up 22 percent of the Ukrainian population in 1989, hoped the republic would go back to Soviet governance.

Dire economic conditions also thinned its population. The population that had been at 52 million in 1989 declined by 8 million in the following 30 years. Ukraine also failed to establish a fair system, the crucial foundation of a nation. According to a 2010 survey by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, only 10 percent of the Ukrainians had faith in their judiciary system, the lowest among the surveyed countries.

The West is also accountable for Ukraine’s misfortune. The strategic importance of its location had emerged from the early 1990s. But the West chose to ignore it rather than helping the country and pulling it closer to their world. The geographic weight had been heavy, but European neighbors also did not bother to share the burden. The West was blinded by the so-called End of History hypothesis, or the lasting triumph of democracy over communism, and neglected the danger of the “Return of History.” Russian President Vladimir Putin regarded Ukraine as a Russian subject. His disregard has fueled determination of Ukrainians to defend their sovereignty and rebuild their country.

The Ukraine crisis poses an important lesson to us. Korea must command leadership in addressing the geopolitical risk on the peninsula. Global powers would wish to keep the status quo. They would not want extra worry while tensions are escalating between the U.S. and China and between the West versus Russia. Such conditions could breed a crisis like the lost 20 years of Ukraine. Korea must tend to its economy so that it does not weaken. The economy is the strongest pillar behind national security. Economic crisis weakens diplomatic power and leads to security crisis. The Korean Peninsula is surrounded by two authoritarian powers who wish to bring back the past glory and command hegemony in global order. North Korea only complicates the situation.

South Korea’s foreign policy must reflect the history and soul. We must not neglect the pains of Ukraine, having experienced the tragic consequences of the Yalta conference. To gain respect and support from allies, foreign policy must bear identity as well as national interests. South Korea is no longer a weak country the global powers shifted around for bargaining in Yalta. But it could face another tragedy if it fails to keep economic prosperity and social unity for a stronger nation. The grave task lies before the next president.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff. 
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