Seoul-Moscow ties spiral downward as Russia cozies up with N. Korea

Posted on : 2024-04-05 16:59 KST Modified on : 2024-04-05 17:34 KST
Russia has warned of a response after South Korea imposed independent sanctions against Russian nationals, ships and organizations
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova. (TASS/Yonhap)
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova. (TASS/Yonhap)


Relations between South Korea and Russia have reached the worst point since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1990 and are only getting worse.

First, Russia sabotaged the North Korean sanctions regime by vetoing a UN Security Council resolution that would have extended the mandate of an expert panel that monitors those sanctions. And now the South Korean government has slapped its own sanctions on Russian organizations and ships, eliciting a complaint from the Russian government.

“This is an unfriendly step from Seoul, it is very disappointing,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in a press briefing on Wednesday according to a report by the TASS news agency. Zakharova was referring to the South Korean government’s imposition of unilateral sanctions on Russian citizens, ships and organizations.

“The imposition of illegitimate sanctions will affect South Korea-Russia relations in a negative way,” the spokesperson noted, warning that Russia would take corresponding action.

Seoul-Moscow relations began to deteriorate after Russia dubbed South Korea an “unfriendly country” for taking part in US-led international sanctions against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

South Korea is suspected of indirectly providing Ukraine with munitions, and President Yoon Suk-yeol promised to “fight together in strong solidarity” with Ukraine, citing the proverb “those who seek to live shall die and those who seek to die shall live,” during a personal visit to Ukraine in July 2023.

After South Korea, the US and Japan reinforced strategic cooperation with the “Spirit of Camp David” joint statement in a trilateral summit in August 2023, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited Russia that September for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since then, Russia and North Korea have been cooperating on military matters and developing stronger ties in a host of areas.

In December 2023, the South Korean government announced a revision to government rules about the import and export of strategic materials while cooperating with the US’ export controls on Russia. That drew a strong rebuke from Russia, which accused South Korea of “joining the West’s illegal sanctions against Russia.” Then in early January, Russia arrested and detained a South Korean missionary surnamed Baek in Vladivostok on espionage charges.

Experts regard Russia’s veto of a mandate extension for the North Korean sanctions monitoring panel at the UN Security Council on March 28 as being not only aimed at undermining efforts to monitor Russia’s military cooperation with North Korea but also representing a move toward basically condoning North Korea’s status as a nuclear weapons state. Both efforts present serious obstacles to Seoul-Moscow relations.

On Tuesday, the South Korean government announced it was imposing unilateral sanctions on two Russian organizations and two individuals that are thought to be connected to sending North Korean IT specialists and others to work in Russia, as well as on two Russian ships with alleged links to shipping North Korean armaments to Russia. This is the first time South Korea has imposed its own sanctions on Russian ships, organizations or individuals.

South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed that the sanctions are not aimed at Russia per se, but instead target illegal arms deals between North Korea and Russia as part of the North Korean sanctions regime.

“While dealing sternly with illegal cooperation between Russia and North Korea, we’re also taking proactive steps to manage our bilateral relations. We also urge Russia to make an appropriate effort,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lim Soo-suk on Thursday.

In a related development, the South Korean Coast Guard seized a stateless vessel that is suspected of having violated UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea. South Korea is reportedly investigating the ship in cooperation with the US.

The 3,000-ton cargo ship was seized by the Coast Guard near Yeosu, South Jeolla Province, on Saturday. The ship departed from the North Korean port of Nampo at the end of last month and after making a call at Shidao, on China’s Shandong Peninsula, charted a course for Vladivostok, Russia.

The South Korean government was reportedly tipped off by the US that the ship is suspected of being linked to sanctions violations.

The South Korean and American authorities are reportedly cooperating in the investigation into the ship, which is currently docked at the port of Busan. If the investigation turns up evidence that North Korea and Russia are engaged in transactions that violate the UN Security Council’s sanctions against the North, that’s likely to weigh down Seoul-Moscow relations even more.

By Park Min-hee, senior staff writer

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