Russian President Vladimir Putin and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol. (Yonhap)
The confirmation that North Korea and Russia plan to step up their military cooperation with a summit is poised to create major difficulties for ties between Seoul and Moscow, which have built up an amicable relationship over the three decades since establishing diplomatic relations in 1990.
As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a conceivable loss of Russia’s participation in North Korea sanctions is also very likely to have a severely negative impact on the foreign affairs and national security environment surrounding the Korean Peninsula.
Analysts are interpreting this as a massive diplomatic debacle created by Russia’s miscalculations as it finds itself in a military dilemma amid its protracted war with Ukraine and by South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s unilateral “values-oriented diplomacy” approach in the wake of ill-considered interview remarks last April.
South Korea and Russia have been on consistently friendly terms for more than 30 years since establishing diplomatic relations in September 1990. This has been counted as a major achievement of the “Nordpolitik” approach of the Roh Tae-woo administration, which did a good job of reading the historical trends with the transition out of the Cold War era.
Since then, both progressive and conservative South Korean administrations have worked hard to strengthen cooperation with Russia.
Examples include the Kim Dae-jung administration’s “Iron Silk Road” vision, the Roh Moo-hyun administration’s “vision for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and a Northeast Asian era,” the Park Geun-hye administration’s “Eurasia Initiative,” and the Moon Jae-in administration’s “New Northern Policy.” During the Lee Myung-bak presidency in 2008, the two sides’ relationship was upgraded into a “strategic cooperative partnership.”
But these visions for bilateral economic cooperation failed to yield noticeable results in the absence of a resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue, which was a prerequisite for the success of related projects.
The strain on relations between Seoul and Moscow began after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February 2022, starting what would go on to be an extended war. After taking part in sanctions against Russia led by the US and European Union, South Korea found itself on a list of “unfriendly countries” proclaimed by Moscow on March 7 of that year.
Experts began stressing the need for a scrupulous approach that would allow Seoul to manage its relationship with Moscow while also meeting some of the expectations of the international community as one of the Western-aligned advanced economies.
Things took a rapid turn for the worse in mid-April 2023, just as ahead of Yoon’s state visit to the US.
Commenting on the Russo-Ukrainian War in an April 19 interview with Reuters, Yoon said, “If there is a situation the international community cannot condone, such as any large-scale attack on civilians, massacre or serious violation of the laws of war, it might be difficult for us to insist only on humanitarian or financial support.”
His remarks strongly suggested the possibility that South Korea might provide lethal weapons to Ukraine.
The response was a barrage of strongly worded warnings from Moscow. The day after the interview was published, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said that the provision of any weapons to Ukraine would be regarded as an overt act of hostility against Russia. She also warned that such actions by South Korea could have an “extremely negative effect” on Russia’s approach to a settlement on the Korean Peninsula.
In a statement the same day, the Russian Embassy in South Korea said that if South Korea supplied weapons, it would “destroy the Russia-South Korea relationship that has been constructively developed over the past 30 years to serve the interests of our two countries’ people.”
Russia’s decisive impact on the Korean Peninsula’s modern history dates back to the period after its liberation in August 1945. The Soviet Union was a driving force in the 1948 establishment of North Korea and the eruption of the Korean War that raged 1950 and 1953. Since July 1961, it has provided security guarantees to the North based on a Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance between the two sides.
Since the end of the Cold War, however, it has placed more emphasis on cooperation with South Korea and remained on relatively frosty terms with the North.
While it remains unclear whether South Korea actually did supply any weapons to Ukraine after that, US news outlets have reported that it was pursuing a system in which it would provide 155 mm shells to the US, which would then provide its own surplus shells to Ukraine.
In a “Ukraine peace and solidarity initiative” announced during his July visit to Ukraine, Yoon pledged support in the areas of security, humanitarian assistance, and reconstruction. On Sept. 10, he announced plans for a large-scale aid package amounting to US$2.3 billion.
To meet its weapon needs, Russia has ultimately made the decision to revive its relationship with North Korea after three decades. The combined effect of Russia’s irresponsibility and Yoon Suk-yeol’s unilateral “values-oriented diplomacy” approach has been to bring about a major catastrophe that leaves the regional political situation worse off.
By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter
Please direct questions or comments to [firstname.lastname@example.org]