[Column] Why Koreans should care about Ukraine

Posted on : 2022-02-21 17:38 KST Modified on : 2022-02-21 17:38 KST
The battle over Ukraine is about territory and about security alliances — but it is also about energy
John Feffer
John Feffer
By John Feffer, author and co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies

This year, North Korea has already conducted more missile tests than in all of 2021. It has even claimed to have successfully tested a hypersonic missile. Pyongyang has also hinted at resuming its nuclear tests.

It’s not all bad news around the Korean Peninsula. At the end of last year, for instance, North Korea agreed in principle — along with South Korea, the United States and China — to formally end the Korean War. If the United States took some real initiative by making a bold offer to Pyongyang, some progress could be made on defusing tensions with North Korea.

But virtually no one in the Biden administration has the time or bandwidth at the moment to focus on Pyongyang. Secretary of State Antony Blinken did meet with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts in Hawaii this month to coordinate strategy on North Korea, but no new initiatives have come out of the meeting.

The Biden administration, after all, is overwhelmed by what’s happening in and around Ukraine. The State Department is working hard diplomatically to prevent a Russian invasion of its neighbor and to create a united front with allies to deescalate the situation. The US media, and a good portion of the US population, is transfixed by the Ukraine crisis.

Russia’s past military actions have not really affected Korea very much. Even Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and its involvement in the civil war on Ukraine’s eastern edge have only marginally affected relations between Seoul and Moscow. Although it has complied with the sanctions against Russia imposed by the United States, South Korea did not apply sanctions of its own after Russia’s actions in 2014.

Russia and South Korea remain active trade partners. Both also have economic and political interests in inter-Korean economic projects — a rail line, a gas pipeline — that would further connect Moscow and Seoul. In the event of a major Russian military offensive in Ukraine, South Korea would mostly be affected by some disruptions in global supply chains and in the activities of the couple dozen South Korean companies in Russia and the dozen firms in Ukraine.

But those are not really the reasons why Koreans should pay close attention to what’s going on in Ukraine. Nor should they be exclusively focused on a potential war in that region.

Koreans need to be looking at a different issue altogether: energy.

Russia is the world’s largest exporter of natural gas, the second largest exporter of petroleum, and the third-largest exporter of coal. Fossil fuels accounted for over 60 percent of the country’s exports in 2019. Oil and gas alone provide well over one-third of the federal budget.

Up to now, Russia has been quite dependent on European markets for its fossil fuel exports. Europe buys three-quarters of all Russian gas.

But that relationship is fragile. If Russia invades Ukraine and Europe retaliates with economic penalties, the flow of energy from east to west might stop completely. Even if a war doesn’t break out, a trade relationship based on fossil fuels has no long-term future. European countries are dependent on natural gas at the moment to help wean their economies from coal. But as they build more renewable energy, they will reduce their use of Russian gas.

Thanks to Chinese investments through its Belt and Road Initiative, the Kremlin is starting to reorient its fossil fuel infrastructure to supply China and points east. China, too, is adding a lot of solar and wind capacity to its energy infrastructure. But because of its huge economy — and its desire to keep growing at a fast rate — China has an enormous need for the energy that Russian supplies. In fact, China became the world’s largest importer of natural gas in the world in 2021, and currently, Russia is its number three supplier.

Now, here’s where South Korea’s role becomes pivotal.

Increasingly, the world is going to be divided not by old ideological divisions of left and right, east and west, north and south. As climate change accelerates, the only important division will be over clean energy versus dirty energy.

The Ukraine crisis is an inflection point in this debate. Europe is moving, albeit not fast enough, toward a clean energy future. Russia is clinging to a fossil fuel past, and it is being encouraged in this old-fashioned dependency by China. Whether war escalates in Ukraine or not, the current crisis will represent a dividing line between countries that are wedded to a fossil-fuel future and those that are working to transcend their fossil-fuel dependency.

The battle over Ukraine is about territory and about security alliances. But it is also about energy. It is ultimately about whether Ukraine remains part of Russia’s fossil-fuel-dependent sphere of influence or a new green Europe.

In East Asia, South Korea could take advantage of the redirected flow of Russian fossil fuel to maintain its own dependency on oil, gas and coal. Fossil fuels account for more than 85 percent of South Korea’s energy. Russia is its second-largest supplier of coal, fourth-largest provider of oil, and sixth-largest exporter of natural gas.

So, out of narrow economic self-interest, South Korea could piggyback on China’s investment projects in Russia. It could even use pipelines and dirty energy projects to strengthen economic cooperation with North Korea.

Or South Korea can move boldly in another direction. It could fulfill the promise of its Green New Deal and break its dependency on Russian energy with massive investments into clean energy production.

This is the time for South Korea to decide which side it is on. I’m not talking about choosing between Russia and Ukraine or between the United States and China. The more important decision is about the future of the planet.

The fossil-fuel partnership of Russia and China is a dead-end. The real question is: can South Korea build a different kind of path to the future?

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

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles