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The Peninsula

South Korea, Ukraine and Russia Part I: Motives and Initial Response

Published May 17, 2022
Category: South Korea

The Moon administration had three overlapping–yet subtly distinct–motives in responding to the invasion of Ukraine. The first is a global public goods rationale: to stand against a blatant violation of international norms. This rationale has figured centrally in South Korean policy statements so far, and has put Korea in a follower position, looking to the G7 and EU as guides to action and offering modest humanitarian support. The second rationale is to provide support to the U.S. as an ally, and indirectly to link Korea more closely to a reinvigorated NATO. Japan appears to be embracing this logic to a greater extent than Korea, and as a member of the G7 has played a much more activist role in the design of the sanctions regime. But this does not imply tensions of the sort that have periodically flared with India. Moreover, the war solidifies arguments for addressing the frustrating downward spiral in Japan-Korea relations.

Nonetheless, the upcoming U.S.-Korea summit could bring some moral pressure to bear on the newly inagurated Yoon administration. And that raises the underlying strategic motives for Korea with respect to the conflict. The war has put an end to illusions about the prospects for Korea-Russia relations. The war has forced the government to scramble in support of affected firms. But given the relatively limited economic dependence on Russia, and the fact that energy has to date been carved out, the sanctions were not as costly as they have been for some European countries. Yet more significant looking forward is what the Chinese response to the war says about its strategic intentions going forward, and whether China and Russia will be even more effective spoilers on the peninsula than they have already been. Today, I look at the first two of these motives; in the next two posts I dissect the third.

Korea as International Citizen: Supporting Global Norms

The logic that has dominated Korean pronouncements on Ukraine to date is what might be called a “global public goods” rationale. As President Moon said in his first public response to the invasion, fundamental norms have been violated and “Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence must be guaranteed.” Introducing the Cabinet meeting on March 8, President Moon noted that “our country is being called upon to play many more roles as its national status has risen. It is rewarding to see our national power increase to the point that we can contribute more to global undertakings and international cooperation…”

Under this model, though, Korea’s obligations are those of a follower. In a phrase that was to be repeated frequently by Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, as a “responsible member of the international community, Korea will support and participate in the efforts of the international community, including economic sanctions,” but on the basis of the “sanctions of the international community.” Given the Russian veto at the UN Security Council, those sanctions were coordinated primarily through the G7 and EU, with a handful of other countries outside those groupings such as Australia and Singapore also joining in.

As a result, it appeared that Korea’s response to the sanctions was slow or even tepid. The U.S. and core European players had been rolling out sanctions measures even prior to the invasion in what the Peterson Institute’s excellent sanctions timeline calls the “deterrent phase” of the crisis. Starting on February 24, new measures appeared almost daily.

As always, Korea was necessarily compared with Japan, which the Peterson timeline shows had announced no fewer than four discrete sets of measures—including participation in the first major joint action on February 26–before Korea announced its first set of measures. But this criticism seems like carping given the speed with which the world was moving. Korea’s first announcement came only two days after the first coordinated sanctions package just noted, and only four days after the invasion itself. And those measures included complex export controls that could not be taken off the shelf.

Korea’s sanctions response has consisted of two tranches of measures that mirrored, although only in part, those orchestrated by the U.S., its NATO partners and Japan. The first package was contained in parallel announcements by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Economy and Finance and consisted of two components. The financial sanctions included prohibitions on transactions with seven major Russian banks, a suspension of trading in Russian Treasury bonds, and an agreement to follow the EU on the expulsion of Russian banks from SWIFT. The second cluster of measures in this first package—and probably the more significant—focused on export controls, including not only products effectively controlled by the U.S. through its so-called forward direct product rule, but other strategic items that Korea would identify over time; these export controls were subsequently extended to Belarus as well. These efforts required coordination and on March 7, a joint statement issued by Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy Moon Sung Wook and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo celebrated Korea’s signing on to the emerging export control regime.

The second—and to date last—tranche of sanctions was announced by Korea on March 7 when the administration “decided to join the international community in imposing additional financial sanctions” by adding a ban on transactions with the Russian central bank, the country’s sovereign wealth funds, and Bank Rossiya. Korea got cover on energy imports from the fact that the EU was also struggling with the issue; as of this writing, no decision has been taken on that issue.

The government also announced a relatively modest $10 million humanitarian support package, but again not too much should be read into this in terms of longer-term commitment. Countries in the broad coalition will play different roles over time, and Korea’s involvement in the reconstruction of Ukraine is likely to be robust.

Alliance Motives?

A second rationale for Korean actions has been much more muted: the idea that Korea would participate in the sanctions regime not only in line with broad international concerns, but to align itself more closely with shifting U.S. and NATO rationales for the conflict. Ever since Lloyd Austin’s comments on April 24 in Kyiv, it is clear that that rationale has shifted fairly dramatically. The initial effort to deploy sanctions to deter quickly evolved into war-fighting in search of a settlement. It has subsequently evolved into the much wider strategic rationale of degrading Russian military capabilities and weakening the country more generally.

By a chance of timing, Korea, Japan and the United States had held a trilateral ministerial in Hawaii just ten days before the invasion. The three parties restated the international legal rationale for joint action, committed to work together to deter Russia—suggesting material actions—and even made reference to the Taiwan Strait. On March 2, a telephone call between Secretaries Blinken and Chung confirmed their joint commitments. According to the read-out, Blinken “thanked Foreign Minister Chung for the Korean government’s strong commitment to join and closely coordinate with the international community’s efforts.”

Korea has no formal obligations under the alliance, let alone to NATO, to participate in an anti-Russian coalition. The decision to join NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence—to which China immediately took umbrage–was unconnected with the war and the invitation to Minister of Foreign Affairs Chung Eui-yong to attend the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting on April 7 was noteworthy, but likely informational in nature. None of the Moon administration’s statements even hint at alignment with the more ambitious Austin objectives. Moreover, government spokesmen have demurred or deflected on sensitive characterizations or actions, such as the charge that Russia was guilty of war crimes. It has also deflected on the provision of arms, although that may partly reflect logistics constraints; whether it is cost-effective for Korea to support the conflict in that way at this time.

This caution did not imply any politically significant differences of views, however, at least in public. With a few newsworthy exceptions, like the public spat with India, the Biden administration has been rightly concerned with holding together a broad alliance of the like-minded rather than nitpicking over commitments outside of the core bloc of G7 and EU countries and its close adherents. There is no reason to think that Biden’s letter thanking Korea for its assistance was anything but sincere, even if the upcoming summit might generate additional asks.

The Changing Strategic and Economic Landscape

The third and more complex rational for Korea’s policy has to do with Seoul’s independent assessment of how the invasion of Ukraine might influence its economy and the play of forces around the peninsula. Here, there is much more complexity. Despite apparent complementarities, South Korea and Russia have never been able to effectively forge meaningful economic relations of any significance, and as a result the sanctions against Russia were at least relatively inexpensive. Nonetheless, energy imports—while only a small share of Korea’s total—would need to be replaced at a time of rising prices and uncertainty. Moreover there are a host of supply chain issues facing several Korean companies that the South Korean government is scrambling to address.

Looming larger over the conflict is what a consolidation of the China-Russia axis means for the Korean peninsula. If you believe, as I do, that the prospects for meaningful engagement with North Korea have long since run their course, then it is not clear that the war has any significant effect. China has not provided any meaningful leadership on the North Korean issue in some time and is not likely to going forward. But China may nonetheless pay a further reputational cost for aligning with Russia and thus indirectly play into newly inaugurated President Yoon Suk Yeol’s focus on the U.S. alliance; these issues are explored in two subsequent posts.

Stephan Haggard is a Non-Resident 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 the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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