Why S. Korea is being cautious when it comes to sanctioning Russia

Posted on : 2022-02-24 17:38 KST Modified on : 2022-02-24 17:38 KST
Park Geun-hye’s administration also opted not to impose sanctions in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea
South Korean President Moon Jae-in checks a handout at a joint meeting of the National Security Council and an economic security strategy council at the Blue House on Tuesday. (provided by the Blue House)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in checks a handout at a joint meeting of the National Security Council and an economic security strategy council at the Blue House on Tuesday. (provided by the Blue House)

The South Korean government’s response to the confrontation between the US and Russia over Ukraine has been noticeably cautious.

After Russia recognized two pro-Russian separatist republics in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region as independent states and deployed its troops there, the US, the European Union, Germany, the UK, Japan, Canada and Australia all declared sanctions against Russia — yet South Korea has not made any mention of following suit.

The response from Seoul is in keeping with those of the US and others, in the sense that it has signaled its respect for preserving Ukraine’s sovereignty and territory and its “active participation in a peaceful, dialogue-based solution as a responsible member of the international community.”

But it has also differed in terms of avoiding any direct condemnation of Russia or references to an “invasion,” along with any mention of sanctions. South Korea has been shying away from a leading role in sanctions, while declaring plans to provide humanitarian assistance to Ukraine as a “key partner country for the New Northern Policy” and lend its support for a peaceful resolution to the situation.

A Blue House official said Wednesday that Seoul was “making various preparations while considering all the possibilities.”

At the same time, they stressed, “Military support and troop deployments do not apply to us.”

The same official said Seoul’s response would be “adjusted in accordance with how the US and other countries respond” — suggesting that it isn’t completely ruling out the possibility of changing course on sanctions.

The cautious stance from the South Korean government was formalized at a joint meeting of the National Security Council and an economic and security strategy council presided over by President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday.

This shows that Seoul was taking into account both the security-related and economic aspects of the situation, which Moon described as an “urgent state of affairs that will inevitably have a major impact not only on national security but also the economy.”

What led Seoul to adopt this response?

To begin with, it hopes to head off any negative repercussions for the North Korean denuclearization issue and the Korean Peninsula peace process.

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council with veto powers and one of the parties in the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue, Russia has a major say in matters concerning the peninsula.

It has also supported South Korea’s approach of resolving the North Korean nuclear issue and other Korean Peninsula matters in a comprehensive, step-by-step manner based on dialogue and negotiation. This has been part of the “strategic coordination” between the two sides, which have been in a “strategic partnership” since 2008.

This explains the special request made by Moon toward the end of the joint meeting, where he asked for “active efforts to ensure that the Ukraine situation does not have a negative impact on efforts toward the Korean Peninsula peace process.”

A second factor is the need to manage Seoul’s relationship with Moscow during a transitional period between administrations.

After its elections, South Korea has traditionally deployed presidential envoys to conduct diplomacy for the launch of the next administration. Russia has been considered one of the “big four” neighbors included in this gesture, alongside the US, China and Japan.

If the current situation leads to a souring of South Korea-Russia relations with the election less than two weeks away, this could lead to the next administration having to contend with serious diplomatic issues with Russia as soon as it takes office.

“Obviously, we need to take into account the fact that this is a transitional period between administrations,” a senior South Korean government official said.

A third factor is the imperative to minimize the fallout for South Korean businesses in Russia and avoid disruptions to energy and raw material supply chains.

Russia is South Korea’s 12th largest trading partner. Samsung Electronics, Hyundai Motor, and LG Electronics all have factories there, with Lotte Hotel and Lotte Department Store also included among the 173 South Korean businesses currently operating in the country.

Russia is also South Korea’s ninth biggest source of imports, which primarily include energy sources and raw materials such as naphtha, crude oil, bituminous coal, and natural gas. This makes it a key trading partner for South Korea, which relies on imports to meet its energy needs.

The South Korean government is reportedly working to establish alternative sources for imports such as anthracite and feed grain, with plans to free up a portion of its crude oil reserves on the market in the event that the situation drags out and causes disruptions to energy and raw material supplies.

Contrary to interpretations coming out of some corners of South Korean society, the Moon administration’s cautious approach on the sanctions issue is difficult to see as reflecting the “biases” of a progressive administration.

South Korea also declined to take part in 2014 when the US called on the international community to join in sanctions against Russia in response to its invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. The administration at the time was a staunchly conservative one under then-President Park Geun-hye.

The Park administration opted to adjust the tenor of its response to the Crimea situation by temporarily halting senior-level exchanges with Moscow, but forgoing sanctions.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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