As two trade barbs, concerns mount over strained state of Seoul’s relationship with Moscow

Posted on : 2024-02-05 16:48 KST Modified on : 2024-04-11 12:40 KST
The volley of criticisms and warnings between the two sides illustrates how volatile the relationship has become amid Russia’s increasing cooperation with North Korea
Andrey Rudenko, the deputy minister of foreign affairs for Russia. (TASS/Yonhap)
Andrey Rudenko, the deputy minister of foreign affairs for Russia. (TASS/Yonhap)

Seoul and Moscow clashed over the weekend as a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson criticized South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s “biased” remarks denouncing North Korea’s legislation of preemptive use of nuclear weapons, prompting the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs to summon the local Russian ambassador and condemn Russia’s “hateful sophistry.”

The unusual situation gave an illustration of the recent souring of relations between South Korea and Russia as the latter grows closer with North Korea.

The clash began with comments on Thursday by Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova.

Responding to Yoon’s remarks at a central integrated defense council meeting on Wednesday, where he called the North Korean regime an “irrational group” that is the “only country in the world that explicitly specifies preemptive nuclear use in its constitution,” Zakharova called the statement “blatantly biased,” making for an odd situation in which a Russian foreign affairs official took issue directly with the language used by a South Korean president.

In response, South Korea’s own Foreign Ministry commented Saturday that Zakharova’s remarks were “impolite, ignorant, and biased in a way that is beneath the spokesperson of a country’s foreign ministry.”

“In comparison with the standards of states that faithfully uphold the norms of the international community, this was hateful sophistry,” it added, in a message that was unusually strongly worded for a diplomatic statement.

The same afternoon, Deputy Minister for Political Affairs Chung Byun-won summoned Russian Ambassador to South Korea Georgy Zinoviev to the Foreign Ministry complex in Seoul to express his “deep regret” over Russia “unconditionally shielding North Korea while disregarding the facts and criticizing in extremely impolite language the remarks made by a country’s head of state.”

This was not the only heated exchange between the two sides.

According to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs report on Sunday, Seoul’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, Kim Gunn, and Chung Byung-won both met individually on Friday with Andrey Rudenko, the Russian deputy minister of foreign affairs for the Asia-Pacific region, and expressed a “stern position on military cooperation between Russia and North Korea.”

The warnings came amid speculation that North Korea has been supplying shells and other conventional weapons to Russia during its war with Ukraine, and that Russia has been sharing information about advanced military technology with the North.

The situation with South Korea and Russia exchanging harshly worded remarks did not emerge out of nowhere.

In an interview with the Korea Herald on Jan. 24, Minister of National Defense Shin Won-sik commented on South Korea’s support for Ukraine, which is currently limited to humanitarian and financial aid. Shin said he personally sees “full support as the way to go as a member of the free world,” but that he stands by the government’s current policy. 

In response, Zakharova sent a warning to the Korean government on Jan. 26: “We would like to warn Seoul against taking impulsive actions that may lead to a complete deterioration of what were once friendly relations with Russia.”

The South Korean Foreign Ministry struck back two days later, commenting, “Russia's demeanor will play an important role in the management of South Korea-Russia relations going forward.”

Experts seem surprised, however, that Zakharova protested South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s criticism of North Korea. 

“It’s difficult to understand why Russia would react in such a way regarding North Korea’s nuclear weaponry, which is a separate issue from South Korea-Russia relations,” said Wi Sung-lac, who formerly served as South Korea’s ambassador to Russia.  

“It’s a demonstration of just how far downhill Seoul-Moscow relations have gone, and how sensitive both sides are to each other’s comments,” he added. 

“The Foreign Ministry is claiming that South Korea-Russia relations are being well-managed, but that is more of a hope than a reality,” said Jeh Sung-hoon, a professor of Russian studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. 

“Our government needs to be careful in its comments and demeanor toward Russia, keeping in mind that relations are on thin ice at the moment,” Jeh added.  

By Shin Hyeong-cheol, staff reporter

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

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