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The Peninsula

Korea, Ukraine and Russia III: The End of Illusions?

Published July 8, 2022
Category: South Korea

In the last two posts on Korea and the war in Ukraine, I showed that Moon administration moved relatively quickly to join the international sanctions regime and was rewarded by inclusion on Russia’s  “unfriendly nations” list. I also argued that the costs of standing on international legal principle were softened by the fact that the economic relationship between the two countries was marginal in any case, even with respect to the trade in energy, which remains carved out of the sanctions regime. The economic effects of the war on Korea have less to do with the Korea-Russia relationship per se than with the wider turbulence the invasion unleashed on global energy and commodity markets.

But what are the broader strategic implications of the conflict for the Korean peninsula? One piece of collateral damage from the invasion—the end of an illusion–is that Russia could be motivated to assist on the peninsula through economic inducements. Rather, Putin has dramatically narrowed the scope of Russia’s Eastern Strategy, drifting into an isolated partnership with China and foreclosing wider Northeast Asian economic initiatives. China has also articulated a new security concept that directly targets U.S. alliances across both the Atlantic and Pacific. As a result, China and Russia are now even less likely—if that is possible—to do anything constructive with respect to the peninsula, opening the opportunity for North Korea to resume its role as regional spoiler by reverting to a new round of missile and possibly nuclear testing.

Yet in important ways, Korea’s abiding strategic challenge remains the same: how to manage its relationship with China. To be sure, the hardening of divisions arise in part from political developments in Korea. The Yoon administration has doubled down on the U.S. alliance. Yet, Korea will continue to face the same “autonomy” problem that the Korean left has perennially fretted over, if in somewhat different guise. Given its geoeconomic as well as geostrategic position, does Korea want to embrace the expansive strategic objectives not only of the anti-Russian coalition but of the emerging Washington consensus on China as well?

The End of Illusions I: The Death of the Northeast Asian Economic Order

First, it is worth noting that the war marks the end of an idea that can be traced all the way back to Roh Tae Woo’s Nordpolitik: the vanishingly faint hope that economic initiatives involving Russia could jumpstart progress on the peninsula. Fantasies of a bridge through North Korea to the Transiberian Railway, oil and gas pipelines, and a Tumen River Initiative—among others–have been floated periodically since the early 1990’s, and by administrations on both left and right; Park Geun Hye’s—ironically–was called the “Eurasian Initiative.” In 2013, the Export-Import Bank of Korea and a Russian counterpart signed a memorandum creating an investment platform. While there are multiple reasons that initiative floundered, the Russian seizure of Crimea and corresponding concerns about sanctions probably played a role.

The most recent incarnation of this hope was on display at the 2017 Eurasian Economic Forum, a conclave first held in 2015 to jump-start Russia-Asia ties in the face of deteriorating relations with the West. Moon Jae-in attended in 2017, carrying a basket of ambitious proposals grouped under the rubric of the New Northern Policy. They ranged from an FTA with the Eurasian Economic Union, a “nine bridges” sectoral approach that included, inter alia, cooperation on natural gas and electric power, railroads and ports, shipbuilding and even support for Russia’s ambitions in the Arctic. “The Russian Far East is where Russia’s New East Asia Policy and Korea’s New Northern Policy meet,” Moon announced.

In an outstanding description of the unreality of the enterprise, Gil Rozman shows how Putin poured cold water on the poorly-disguised political objectives of both Korea and Japan (Abe had brought his own political wish-list, including with respect to the Kuriles). For their part, North Koreans showed their respects for the gathering by undertaking the sixth nuclear test in the middle of the conclave. It may not seem news to point out that a venture of this sort, which private sector actors viewed with substantial skepticism from the beginning, did not come to fruition. Yet by cutting himself off from both Korea and Japan—the two most significant economies in the region after China–Putin has effectively defined his Eastern Strategy in terms of his relationship with China, Central Asia and whatever diminished trade Southeast Asia will continue to conduct.

The Deepening of the Sino-Russian Axis

Since the THAAD affair, if not before, Korea’s economic dependence on China has emerged as the country’s most significant strategic challenge. The war in Ukraine has not changed that fact, but it has made the stakes much more clear. Xi’s embrace of Putin at the winter Olympics—codified in their remarkable joint statement—outlined a foreign policy agenda focused on the Eurasian heartland. However, its most significant feature from Korea’s perspective was its critique not only of NATO but U.S. alliances in Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific strategy. If there is any doubt that the Xi-Putin joint statement reflected a momentary lapse of judgment on the part of Xi Jinping, it is worth considering President Xi’s terse keynote address at the Boao Forum in late April. His outline of a Global Security Initiative builds on the Sino-Russian joint statement, and similarly focuses on the dangers posed by Western alliances. The initiative—which we are bound to hear more about–manages to outline an approach to world order that is even more Manichean than the most vociferous U.S. China hawks.

The joint statement made no mention of the Korean peninsula; managing the North Korean nuclear challenge apparently didn’t fit very comfortably with the new Sino-Russian order. Rather, as the UN Security Council drama over sanctions demonstrated, China and Russia are now openly and as a matter of policy rejecting the UNSC commitments they themselves had made, including to respond to further North Korean ICBM tests. The sanctions regime, leaking badly as the most recent Panel of Experts report shows, will continue to unravel.

For its part, the Sino-Russian new order and the war in Ukraine provide new opportunities for North Korea to show its fealty by resuming its role as regional irritant.  As recently as the April 2019 Putin-Kim summit, evidence of strains in the bilateral relationship with Russia were on full display. By November of that year, China and Russia were already cooperating to loosen UN sanctions in a draft resolution I analyzed with Liuya Zhang. On the day of the invasion, the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a commentary that outlined its motives clearly: to fuse Russian and North Korean narratives on the United States. As the commentary stated, “the root cause of the Ukrainian crisis also lies in the high-handedness and arbitrariness of the U.S. which has held on solely to the unilateral sanction and pressure while pursuing only global hegemony and military supremacy in disregard of the legitimate demand of Russia for its security.” Sound familiar? And North Korea was one of only five states—a rogues gallery rounded out by Syria, Eritrea and Belarus as well as Russia—to vote against a UN General Assembly resolution condemning the invasion (35 states abstained). It can hardly be coincidental that the invasion of Ukraine was accompanied by a dramatic increase in North Korean missile testing, including the end of the self-imposed moratorium on ICBM tests.

The Continuing Dilemmas for South Korean Foreign Policy

Perversely, the hardening divisions just described should only further the gains to the alliance that come from domestic political developments in the U.S. and Korea: the end of the era of alliance uncertainty under Trump and President Yoon’s stated intention to strengthen an alliance with the United States that—critics notwithstanding–was already in reasonably good shape to begin with following the 2021 summit. Those critics of the Moon administration—who abound in Washington and grit their teeth during progressive administrations— did little to conceal their glee at the outcome of the presidential election. What was not to like? Not only did Yoon promise a harder line with respect to North Korea, he expressed skepticism about China and promised a whole wish list of policy actions that would align Korea with the Indo-Pacific strategy: with respect to Taiwan; in a possible deepening association with the Quad; in closer security cooperation with Japan; in the revival of the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group among other initiatives. Under this interpretation of the world, the war in Ukraine may have the salutary effect of slowing alliance drift.

But caution is warranted. First, if Moon’s engagement efforts ultimately failed it does not follow that the tough stance promised by Yoon will fare any better; to the contrary, tensions around the peninsula are likely to intensify. It was only a matter of time before North Korea acted out following the crushing disappointment of the Hanoi summit. But that acting out will now fall squarely on the shoulders of the Yoon administration. Moreover, as I have argued above the deepening of the Sino-Russian axes will only provide more opportunities—and resources—for North Korea to resume its active spoiler role in the region. We were already in a containment world vis-à-vis North Korea, and that job is now likely to get more complex.

But more importantly, the closer alignment with U.S. objectives carries some of its own political risks for South Korea. South Korea has managed to cap its exposure to the China market at about 25 percent of total trade. But that share still makes China by far South Korea’s most important trading partner. Nor is that trade simple; it reflects an equally if not more important set of foreign investments and supply chains that contribute significantly to Korea’s wider global economic footprint. One likely effect of the hardening of divisions hopefully an end to the “Security-United States, Economy-China”(安美經中) formula, which was never a particularly useful characterization of Korea’s foreign policy to begin with. A feature of the Biden summits with both Moon and Yoon is greater attention to how the allies might cooperate with respect to critical technologies and supply chain resilience.

But the China connection is not going away. A close reading of Yoon’s policy pitch in Foreign Affairs prior to the election suggests a subtly different approach to China than some might think. To be sure, Yoon did openly align with the U.S. on normative issues; Yoon’s inaugural speech on the significance of freedom stands in pretty stark contrast with the opening section of the Sino-Russian joint statement. But in the Foreign Affairs piece, Yoon and his advisors signaled an intention to define the strategic differences with China primarily in terms of North Korea, acknowledging the need to partially decouple security and economic issues through high-level strategic dialogue.

Second, the realignments Yoon proposes by no means rest on an unambiguous political mandate; this point is made in a contrarian analysis from the Quincy Institute by Jessica Lee and Sadang Shidore.  Not only was the election one of the closest in Korean history, but Yoon’s opposition continues to command a majority in the National Assembly. Lee and Shidore underestimate domestic backlash in Korea against China in recent years: since THAAD, a variety of polls have shown the reputational costs China has born for its decision to play hardball. A new poll from ASAN in the wake of the Ukraine War suggests continued distrust of China and a revival in support for the U.S. alliance.

But the data is somewhat murky in terms of the willingness of the public to embrace a new Cold War in Asia. Does Korea want to embrace the rising pessimism in the U.S. about China or will it need a more nuanced approach? An improvement in Korea-Japan relations stands as an enduring U.S. objective. But how far down the road of alliance-like cooperation is Seoul willing to move? The invitation to attend the NATO summit—along with Japan, Australia and New Zealand—demonstrates the new weight both NATO and the EU are giving to the East Asian strategic landscape. Yet does Seoul want to sign to all aspects of  NATO’s strategic vision, which relates not only to Russia but inevitably to the Russia-China relationship as well?

And all of this is quite apart from the question of whether a tough line with North Korea will have the intended effect of easing tensions on the peninsula by showing strength or have the quite opposite effect of exacerbating them.

By Way of Conclusion

The Ukraine war has clearly had wide-ranging strategic consequences for Korea as divisions in Northeast Asia harden. The Moon administration’s close alignment with Europe and the U.S. was carried forward and deepened by the Yoon administration, which thankfully promises to stem the deterioration in relations with Tokyo as well. The possibilities of Russian connections facilitating a breakthrough on the peninsula now lie in dust. Both elites and publics will rightly view the Sino-Russian axes with unease, in part because of the space it gives to North Korea to act out.

But enduring strategic imperatives and domestic politics complicate any effort to assess the effect of the Ukraine war. Yoon’s election will build on the outcome of the Biden-Moon summit and appease fears—misplaced in my view—of alliance drift. But South Korea still faces the strategic question of whether to fully buy into the new Cold War or seek to thread the diminishing opportunities for maneuver vis-à-vis China and North Korea. Those choices remain to be made.

Stephan Haggard is a Non-Resident  Distinguished Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute and the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, Director of the Korea-Pacific Program and distinguished professor of political science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy University of California San Diego. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Shutterstock.

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