Lee Jong-eun

This month, a South Korean missionary was arrested in Russia on charges of espionage. According to Russia’s official news agency, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has detained a South Korean citizen on suspicion of passing state secrets to a foreign intelligence service. Other sources have speculated the missionary’s involvement in assisting North Korean defectors in Russia motivated the arrest. Since then, South Korea’s embassy has been in confidential negotiations with Russia to release its citizen.

The recent event is a continuation of the challenges South Korea has faced over the past two years in implementing its tightrope diplomacy with Russia. Since the start of the Russia-Ukraine War, Russia has drawn closer toward partnership with North Korea, while South Korea has expanded its partnership with the United States and Japan. Similar to the West and Japan, the South Korean government has voted for the U.N. resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion and has participated in international sanctions against Russia. Last year, South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol made a surprise visit to Ukraine after attending the NATO Summit and pledged expansion of humanitarian and economic aid.

At the same time, South Korea has shown caution in mitigating direct conflicts with Russia. The Yoon government has refrained from directly sending military aid to Ukraine, though it has exported arms and munitions to the U.S. and European countries. It has also negotiated with the U.S. for exemption in continuing financial transactions with the Russian Ministry of Finance, allowing the latter to repay debt to South Korea.

In contrast to Japan, which had expelled multiple Russian diplomats in protest of Russia’s alleged war crimes, the South Korean government has been more equivocal in its diplomatic statement. Early this year, South Korea’s Defense Minister Shin Won-shik declined to describe the deaths of Ukrainian civilians in the village of Bucha conclusively as a massacre. This month, South Korea’s foreign ministry declined to make official statements on the reelection of Russia's President Vladimir Putin, in contrast to other countries that publicly criticized the election outcome as undemocratic.

South Korea’s nuanced approach toward Russia has produced mixed results. Russia has displayed relatively less hostility toward South Korea than toward other US allies. Russia’s ambassador to South Korea has described South Korea as “most favorable” among Russia’s list of “unfavorable countries.” Nonetheless, bilateral tensions have increased in the past two years.

Russia has criticized South Korea’s increased alignment with the U.S. and Japan and has warned against South Korea’s involvement in supporting Ukraine. South Korea, in turn, has criticized Russia for increased diplomatic and economic support toward North Korea, emboldening the DPRK regime to continue military provocations in East Asia. South Korea’s foreign ministry has also expressed concerns about Putin’s recent comment in a public interview that North Korea already has a “nuclear umbrella,” which could be interpreted as Russia’s tacit recognition of the DPRK as a nuclear-armed state.

To some skeptics, South Korea’s tightrope diplomacy toward Russia might appear futile in the New Cold War era between the West and the alliance of revisionist countries such as Russia, China and North Korea. However, for South Korea, preserving diplomatic ties with Russia may be based on a strategic calculation that current Russia-DPRK security ties are only transactional.

In the West, there are growing concerns that certain U.S. policymakers perceive alliances as transactional partnerships rather than long-term commitments. The current Russia-North Korea partnership, however, is also transactional, based upon the present overlapping interests of the two countries. Prior to the war in Ukraine, Putin’s Russia had limited strategic interests in actively supporting the DPRK regime. As recently as 2017, Putin signed a presidential decree implementing the U.N. Security Council’s sanction on North Korea. Instead, Russia pursued what was characterized as “equidistance diplomacy,” seeking economic and strategic benefits from its relationship with both Koreas.

The Russia-Ukraine War has strengthened Russia's partnership with North Korea at the expense of the Russia-ROK relationship. North Korea is one of the few countries that have endorsed Russia’s war and has supplied military arms to Russia. In return, Russia has circumvented international sanctions to provide economic aid to North Korea and used its U.N. Security Council veto to prevent future sanctions. Russia may have also provided or could provide in the future, technological assistance to enhance North Korea’s military and nuclear capacity, causing tensions with South Korea.

But how long would the bilateral partnership continue? At present, Russia considers North Korea’s military assistance as beneficial to its war with Ukraine. But if the war eventually ends, what other strategic benefits could North Korea offer to Russia? North Korea lacks China's economic and technological resources or Iran’s regional clout. North Korea could distract the United States with its nuclear provocations, but Russia could consider the risk that North Korea is too independent to be Russia’s reliable strategic partner. If North Korea’s value to Russia’s strategic interests declines, Russia’s incentive to maintain close partnerships could also decline.

Subsequently, despite current tensions, South Korea’s motivation to maintain diplomatic relations with Russia may be based on a strategy to exploit the eventual weakening of the Russia-DPRK partnership. Isolating North Korea from its potential allies is a key strategic objective for South Korea, perhaps almost as important as preserving its own alliances. South Korea’s preservation of diplomatic ties with Russia could be an important factor in dissuading Russia from being motivated by hostility toward South Korea to continue robust support for North Korea.

Paradoxically, North Korea’s strategic interest may be for the Russia-Ukraine War to continue indefinitely. In contrast, South Korea’s strategic goal is to navigate the risks from the war until its end, then take advantage of the changes to Russia’s reliance on North Korea.

Lee Jong-eun is an assistant professor of political science at North Greenville University.

QOSHE - Why South Korea walks a diplomatic tightrope with Russia - Lee Jong-Eun
menu_open
Columnists Actual . Favourites . Archive
We use cookies to provide some features and experiences in QOSHE

More information  .  Close
Aa Aa Aa
- A +

Why South Korea walks a diplomatic tightrope with Russia

17 0
31.03.2024

Lee Jong-eun

This month, a South Korean missionary was arrested in Russia on charges of espionage. According to Russia’s official news agency, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has detained a South Korean citizen on suspicion of passing state secrets to a foreign intelligence service. Other sources have speculated the missionary’s involvement in assisting North Korean defectors in Russia motivated the arrest. Since then, South Korea’s embassy has been in confidential negotiations with Russia to release its citizen.

The recent event is a continuation of the challenges South Korea has faced over the past two years in implementing its tightrope diplomacy with Russia. Since the start of the Russia-Ukraine War, Russia has drawn closer toward partnership with North Korea, while South Korea has expanded its partnership with the United States and Japan. Similar to the West and Japan, the South Korean government has voted for the U.N. resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion and has participated in international sanctions against Russia. Last year, South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol made a surprise visit to Ukraine after attending the NATO Summit and pledged expansion of humanitarian and economic aid.

At the same time, South Korea has shown caution in mitigating direct conflicts with Russia. The Yoon government has refrained from directly sending military aid to Ukraine, though it has exported arms and munitions to the U.S. and European countries. It has also negotiated with the U.S. for exemption in continuing financial transactions with the Russian Ministry of Finance, allowing the latter to........

© The Korea Times


Get it on Google Play