[Column] Korea faces a Sophie’s Choice

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[Column] Korea faces a Sophie’s Choice

Kwon Ki-chang
The author is a former Korean Ambassador to Ukraine.

In life, there are times you face an inevitable choice. And that choice can change your life completely. “Sophie’s Choice” is a novel by American author William Styron. Sophie, a Polish Jew, was arrested by the Nazis during World War II and was sent to Auschwitz with her young son and daughter. At the entrance to the camp, a German officer forces her to choose a child to send to the gas chamber. After choosing her weak daughter, she cries as the daughter is dragged by the German officer. The event remains a stigma for Sophie for life.

In late January, U.S. Secretary of Defense Llyod Austin and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Korea and requested weapons assistance for Ukraine. Since then, the Economist published an article criticizing the Korean government for refusing the weapons after expressing the will to cooperate with NATO for the protection of universal values. At the Valdai Club meeting in October 2022, Russian president Vladimir Putin warned that if Korea provided Ukraine with weapons and ammunition, bilateral relations would break down. He also suggested the possibility of military cooperation with North Korea.

The “value-based diplomacy” of the Yoon Suk Yeol administration faces an international test with the arms aid. Sophie had to choose between two. Korean diplomacy faces the challenging situation Sophie faced at Auschwitz. If Korea follows Western democratic allies and provides weapons to Ukraine, its relationship with Russia will break down.

The UN Security Council statement denouncing North Korea’s ballistic missile launch was canceled due to Russia and China’s rejection. Russia can take a step further and provide North Korea with missile technology it needs. Also, Russia can cut off the supply of fossil fuel such as natural gas, enriched uranium and rare gas Korea imports for secondary battery and semiconductor processing.

On the other hand, if Korea rejects its Western allies’ request, it could lead to a backlash. If Korea’s relationship with the Western world is estranged, it would negatively affect the Korea-U.S. alliance, its basis of security. What must the Korean government do?

Considering the government’s value diplomacy and the Korea-U.S. alliance, I predict that it will be difficult to avoid providing weapons aid as time goes by.

This spring will be a turning point for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If Korea — a country which produces most of the weapons needed in war — refuses to assist, NATO could refuse to help when Korea is invaded. If Korean companies are to participate in the reconstruction of Ukraine in the future, the country should play some sort of role. For this choice, Korea also needs to make diplomatic efforts to manage the relationship with Russia.

In my opinion, it is desirable to provide indirect assistance through the U.S. — mostly shells and ammunition NATO desperately wants. South and North Korea have been producing large amounts of artillery shells and ammunition despite the global trend of arms reduction. Since the U.S. revealed that North Korea has been sending ammunition to Russia, selling shells and ammunition to allies such as the U.S. can be justified.

Even if Korea provides weapons, it is necessary to show that Korea had no choice but to assist at the request of the West — instead of preemptively providing them — to minimize Russia’s resistance. Germany provided tanks to Ukraine after insisting that it would provide tanks only after the U.S. announced its assistance first.

It is better to provide defensive weapons than offensive ones. In the early days of the war, the West mainly provided defensive weapons to prevent the expansion of the war and offered offensive weapons later. When choosing to provide weapons, Korea must preemptively secure alternative suppliers for fossil fuel and industrial materials to brace for Russia’s sanctions.

The shock from choosing between two options could affect Korea’s foreign policy and security for a long time. A new Cold War paradigm can consolidate given the possibility that China will provide weapons to Russia first. At this juncture, it is hard to ignore the requests from the democratic camp for help.

I hope the Yoon administration will wisely get through the test of its value diplomacy.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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