Responding to Ukraine crisis
The author is a former South Korean representative to the six-party talks and head of the diplomacy and security division of the JoongAng Ilbo’s Reset Korea campaign.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has stretched to over 100 days, yet there is no end in sight. Ukraine remains stubbornly resistant. Gains and losses repeat in the east and south where Russia is taking control. The battle has caused ripples in the global order. As South Korea has come under influence, it may have to make crucial policy choices. We should go over the meaning and take possible steps for social discussions on policy choices.
What has led Russia to take military action? Some interpret the move as having an aggressive intention to retrieve the former Soviet territory. But it should be regarded more as a defensive action. Russia has been apprehensive of security threats after western influence spread to the former Eastern Bloc. The country has become threatened by the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the trans-Atlantic alliance specifically founded to counter the Soviet Empire in Europe. The liberalization and democratization deepened in the process, unsettling the Russian regime. Moscow believes that the West desires to weaken the Russian regime and change it.
Fretful Moscow sought the annexation of Crimea and the separation of Donbas, the large mining and industrial region that blankets much of eastern Ukraine when the leadership of Kyiv moved towards joining the NATO.
When the Ukrainian government went on a pro-western path despite warnings from Moscow, Russia decided to defeat Ukraine through fast military action and institutionalize neutrality of Ukraine through negotiations instead of sitting idly by to lose Ukraine to the West.
When Russia carried out its invasion, it came under international condemnation for using force to suppress a sovereign nation with aspirations for freedom and democracy, without any sympathy towards its sense of insecurity. The West perceives the war as an aggression by an autocracy against democracy. The Russian invasion has had a profound impact on geopolitics in several ways. This must be taken into account when South Korea makes its policy steps.
First, the West and Russia have become poles apart even beyond the neo-Cold War context. The West has become unprecedentedly united in levying toughest-yet sanctions on Russia. Under former U.S. President Donald Trump, America and Europe grew apart, and Britain bolted out of the European Union. The fissures would have pleased Moscow. But it now faces the tightest-ever alliance among Western states and concerted sanctions.
Second, the Ukraine crisis also deepens the U.S.-Russia and U.S.-China conflicts in Asia. Since China opposes military aggression on another state, it has not outright supported Moscow. But the West sees Beijing in the same context of autocracy. Beijing also finds the Western sanctions as a potential threat against its regime as it maintains strategic partnership with Moscow.
Third, due to global and regional ramifications, the Ukraine war also has huge implications for the Korean Peninsula. The U.S.-Russia confrontation reminds us of how little choice Korea and other U.S. allies have. The Ukraine crisis is a rude awakening on the importance of alliance in case of a war. North Korea could have been further convinced of the importance of nuclear weapons to deter U.S. invasion. Pyongyang fully cheers Moscow.
A new administration has been launched in Korea during this sensitive time. The government emphasizes stronger alliances with America. It has been more eager in cementing ties with the U.S. than the former liberal administration. The government has been more supportive of the U.S. demand for joining its containment campaign against China.
As a result, U.S. demands will only increase. Seoul may not be able to refuse Washington’s request for weapons for Ukraine. The relationship with Moscow that is already at the weakest since normalization in 1992 may worsen.
Beijing may also not be happy about Seoul joining U.S. actions on China and Russia. China will not be pleased with South Korea getting closer to America. Beijing could take action to contain the movement.
South Korea as a key ally to the U.S. and the world’s 10th largest trade power cannot go against international trend. How willingly it complies with demands from the U.S. and how it tries to sustain ties with Moscow and Beijing will be the challenge. Seoul must decide where it stands and determine its standards for future relationship with the U.S., Russia and China. South Korea must a find balance between the U.S-Russia and U.S.-China ties according to its identity and explore hedging moves.
Seoul must keep a close watch on the developments and work out a response. The conflict in Ukraine has that much influence on the Korean Peninsula under current international order. It must be well aware of the battle and negotiation developments and the internal affairs of Russia.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.