Toward diplomacy based on values and norms
The author, a former foreign minister, is an emeritus professor at Seoul National University.
The invasion of Ukraine will be remembered as Russia’s fatal mistake. As a result of President Vladimir Putin’s misjudgment of reactions from Ukraine and NATO, his initial strategy of setting up a satellite government across the border in a blitzkrieg-like operation has failed. Due to all-out sanctions on the Russian economy, weakness of the Russian forces, and global condemnation of killings of civilians, Russia’s international stature will be weakened rather than raised.
The Ukraine war offers South Korea some significant lessons. First of all, the war has reminded us of the importance of values and norms in international politics. As the right to self-determination — or the right of a people to determine its own destiny — is an internationally-recognized norm, it cannot be forgiven if a big country tramples on that right with military force. If we approve this invasion, it’s the same as endorsing Japan’s colonization of Joseon in the early 20th century through the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).
After the Ukraine war, we are reminded that values, principles and international norms serve as an important shield for countries like South Korea with high geopolitical risks and strong neighbors. Our diplomacy should be based on internationally-accepted values such as democracy, sovereignty, human rights in an even more unequivocal way than before. Above all, the government must engage in diplomacy based on our identity as a democratic state as stipulated in Article One of the Constitution.
And yet, Korea’s diplomacy would pose a problem due to an apparent divergence between its national identity — a democratic state — and its diplomatic lines despite the need to make them coherent. Such a lack of consistency shows a stark contrast with Singapore, which chose to participate in international sanctions on Russia in a more resolute way than Seoul.
Let’s consider some strategic implications of the Ukraine war. After shifting the focus to the Indo-Pacific, the United States has to deal with Russia in Europe and China in Asia at the same time. The dilemma will inevitably force the U.S. to give more defense burdens to NATO in Europe and its allies in Asia while trying to reinforce alliances in the two theaters. As Germany’s recent decision to noticeably increase its defense budget suggests, more pressure will be put on South Korea to improve its relations with Japan and strengthen its self-defense capability. If the incoming administration in Korea can accommodate such requests and engage in global diplomacy to help address international challenges such as climate change, the pandemic and development cooperation, it can help lift Korea’s global stature as a Top 10 economy and augment its alliance with the U.S.
The Ukraine war also poses implications on the North Korean issue. After sitting on its hand over the thorny issue throughout 2021, the U.S. cannot afford to pay attention to North Korea even after it test-fired an allegedly advanced ICBM, because America has to deal with the Ukraine war first.
That critical mismatch offers Seoul an opportunity to take leadership in resolving nuclear threats from North Korea. Requesting the U.S. extend its nuclear deterrence is important. But if the new administration in South Korea bets all on reaffirming the deterrence, the North Korean issue could go adrift in a new Cold War contest between the North Korea-China-Russia axis and the South Korea-U.S.-Japan axis — and eventually lead to a repeat of the heightened tension in 2017. If the new administration can restore the alliance successfully, it can have more diplomatic leeway to solve the conundrum in a direction it wants. What matters is the new conservative government’s diplomatic skills.
Lastly, the war in Ukraine has implications for South Korea’s external strategy. After the war sharpened a contest between democratic and authoritarian systems, America wants to take advantage of small-sized multilateral networks — such as the Quad, Aukus, Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) — to keep China in check, which carries similarities with Bismarck’s foreign policy in the 1870s and 80s after the German unification.
But the problem is that as long as South Korea relies on the alliance for security, it can hardly refuse a request for cooperation from America.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.