Why S.Korea Should Support Ukraine

  • By Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University, Senior Fellow in Human Freedom at George W. Bush Institute, and Korea Chair at CSIS in Washington, D.C.

    April 18, 2022 13:47

    Victor Cha

    A delegation led by lawmaker Park Jin met with U.S. officials and experts in Washington, D.C. We hosted the delegation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) with former U.S. National Security Council officials, ambassadors to South Korea and U.S. Force Korea commanders, and there was uniform positive support for president-elect Yoon Seok-youl's foreign policy agenda.

    But the delegation will have been struck during their week in town by how singularly focused Washington is on the war in Ukraine, rather than the pivot to Asia. The Yoon administration will have to adjust its foreign policy to these realities and go farther than the Moon Jae-in government did in supporting Ukraine's fight for freedom against Russia.

    The Moon government's initial response to Russia's unprovoked war of aggression was uninspiring, to say the least. South Korea did not join any of the U.S.-led sanctions aimed to deter a Russian invasion, explaining that it did not want to harm its growing economic relations with Russia without acknowledging any South Korean interest in the political situation.

    When the invasion occurred, Moon carefully avoided condemning the Russian invasion or calling out Putin by name, instead making passive statements about "upholding Ukrainian sovereignty," and "resolving the situation peacefully." South Korean actions remained focused on preserving energy imports from Russia and trade exports. This was essentially the same playbook followed in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea.

    That South Korea saw no connection between the attack against Ukraine and the way the world came to Seoul's defense in June 1950 is astounding. The position came under criticism in Washington as a quiet acknowledgment that South Korea cannot be counted on in the community of democracies to stand up for freedom, unlike Australia, Japan or others, and that its voice in world affairs would remain faint. The excuse that the Moon government needed to appease Russia in order to gain Moscow's support on engaging North Korea was laughable in the face of multiple ballistic missile tests by the North this year.

    It took four days after the invasion before South Korea would sign on to the broadest multilateral sanctions against Russia, but it would not enact bilateral ones. It later signed on to SWIFT sanctions and suspension of financial transactions with Russian banks. But at the same time it sought exemptions from the U.S. Foreign Direct Product Rule that restricts export of products with American electronic technology, which it only was able to win after announcing financial sanctions against Russia.

    South Korea has to do better. If Russia wins in Ukraine, the world will be a different place, where autocrats will feel emboldened. That matters for South Korea. As a global power, South Korea needs to stand with other advanced industrialized democracies to deter aggression and to support the liberal international order. To do so in Ukraine is not a distraction from Korean affairs, but an action that invests in the obligation of others to do the same for South Korea against illiberal external threats, be they from North Korea or China.

    Thus far, president-elect Yoon seems to understand what is at stake. He immediately called Russia's invasion an act of aggression in violation of international law and the UN Charter. And he stated on numerous occasions that this is not a problem on "the other side of the world" or a "stranger's business" for South Koreans.

    This is all very encouraging. The question is what the president-elect can do to put actions behind these words. Thus far, South Korea's direct support of Ukraine has been modest. It has supplied some military uniforms and equipment to the Ukrainian army and US$10 million in humanitarian assistance. It has allowed about 3,800 Ukrainians in South Korea to extend their visas, and supported invitations to family members on humanitarian grounds with a simplified visa process.

    But these are fairly minor actions that may tick the box on showing support but do not truly buttress the Ukrainian resistance on the battlefield, nor make waves in the international community as a sign of South Korea's commitment to defend democracy.

    South Korea needs to consider the question whether it should provide lethal combat assistance to Ukraine. It is capable of providing infantry fighting vehicles, K-9 artillery, and K-10 ammunition transport vehicles as it is doing to Australia.

    This would be the strongest statement of the new government's commitment to be a global player. It would fit with South Korea's own plans to demonstrate the world-class capacity of its defense industrial products. And it would resonate deeply with the Joe Biden administration as a contribution to the alliance as a bulwark of democracy.

    Such an action would no doubt upset bilateral relations with Russia. But with Seoul having imposed financial and trade sanctions already, there is little chance that Putin will not already see South Korea as aligned with the West. The South Korean worry is that Russia will retaliate with its own sanctions on energy exports. This is likely, but it could be a spur to the Yoon government's plans to improve South Korea's supply-chain security.

    It is undeniable that China and Russia have weaponized economic interdependence, which South Koreans remember very well from the 2017 Chinese boycott, so it is incumbent on the new government to create new supply-chain resilience by reducing dependence on these two neighbors. On bituminous coal, for example, South Korea has already reduced its dependence on Russia to 54 percent from 75 percent last year by purchasing more coal from Australia, which has ready supplies to export given China's sanctioning of Australian coal. This type of trade diversion is the only way to reduce future vulnerability to coercion by illiberal regimes.

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