Ukrainian Crisis, Viewed from South Korea
How to react to the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Thursday has dominated South Korean politics for the last couple of days.
"The Ukrainian crisis can influence the Korean Peninsula. If the US deploys military resources to Eastern Europe, the security umbrella for Korea could be reduced in proportion."
This is how the international news editor at Hankook Ilbo, a South Korean daily newspaper, assessed the Russian threat against Ukraine less than two weeks ago. His conclusion that an American "military confrontation with Russia will lessen the pressure on North Korea as the latter reinitiates nuclear experiments or Inter-continental ballistic missile testing" is speculative at best, but the words are telling of how the war in Europe is being largely perceived in South Korea: as a new cause of concern for the country's own security.
Russia began its military assault on Ukraine in the early morning hours of Thursday. Western leaders have been unanimous in condemning the attack, feared for weeks given the massive buildup of Russian troops on Ukrainian borders.
The development has shaken South Korea, too, in the run-up to the presidential election on Mar. 9. While Russia and Ukraine never quite figured prominently in South Korea's geopolitical imagination, many see a parallel between Ukraine and South Korea: both are torn between the so-called West (the European Union and Nato for the former and the US for the latter) and their mighty neighbors (Russia and China respectively).
If Russian president Vladimir Putin succeeds in toppling the Ukrainian government and pays no price, then who is to prevent China or North Korea from engaging in similar maneuvers? And will the US, a long-time military ally with its largest overseas base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, pivot away from East Asia due to the Russian aggression?
Such questions are being openly asked as Seoul witnesses Russian forces marching into into the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, as well as the inability of the international community to prevent the Russian incursion. That may be why president Moon Jae-in was quick on Thursday to condemn the Russian invasion:
"As a responsible member of the international community, the Republic of Korea will support and participate in the efforts of the international community to suppress a military invasion and solve the situation peacefully, including economic sanctions."
Moon long courted Putin's support in achieving detente with North Korea. In May 2017, the same month Moon was sworn in, he called for a Russian gas pipeline linking Vladivostok to Seoul via North Korea. It was to be a part of what he called a "New Northern Policy" for fostering economic cooperation with Russia, Central Asia, North Korea and three Chinese provinces bordering the North.
With less than three months left on his term, the New Northern Policy never quite took off, and Moon's dreams—including formally ending the Korean War and signing a peace treaty—lie in tatters, and he has nothing to lose by taking a firm stance.
The two frontrunners to succeed him have been yet more vocal, busily spinning narratives about Ukraine to score points on the campaign trail.
Yoon Seok-youl of the conservative opposition People Power Party saw the Russian action as proof that Seoul must strengthen its ties to Washington:
"A declaration of an end to the Korean War or a peace treaty will never guarantee peace on the Korean Peninsula. A promise not backed by power is meaningless. I believe that only a strong power of deterrence based on a solid ROK (Republic of Korea)-US alliance can allow us to decide our own destiny."
And part of that "power" Yoon envisions is additional deployment of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), the controversial US-made missile system that South Korea first installed in 2017; and "preemptive strike capabilities" against North Korea.
His competitor Lee Jae-myung, representing the ruling center-left Minjoo Party, couldn't disagree more, writing on Facebook: "Politicizing national security, for example by calling for THAAD deployment or a preemptive strike, is to bring about one's own danger."
"This crisis [in Ukraine] can grow into something beyond a regional conflict and lead to a new Cold War era. That's truly worrisome, and that's why peace on the Korean Peninsula is all the more important."
Lee's known position on inter-Korean relations is to continue Moon's policy of seeking peace and dialogue with North Korea, and he has a habit of linking peace to economic growth to justify his conciliatory policy toward the North. At a campaign rally on Thursday, he said, "Stock prices are falling because of Ukraine. How would the [South Korean] economy look if tension rose on the Korean Peninsula?"
More controversially, Lee and his Minjoo Party have also sought to draw support by comparing Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Yoon, and, along the way, blaming Zelenskyy for the war.
"A novice politician with only six months of experience became president of Ukraine. He said he wanted Nato membership and provoked Russia. That's why the conflict ultimately happened," Lee said at a televised debate Friday evening.
And he isn't the only one from the Minjoo to present Zelenskyy as a cautionary tale.
"War broke out because Ukraine elected a wrong president," said former justice minister Choo Mi-ae on Friday. "You shouldn't be fooled by the lies of candidate Yoon Seok-youl, who is provoking war and and causing anxiety over national security."
That same day the party's election campaign co-chairperson Park Yong-jin told the public broadcaster KBS:
"Look at the Ukrainian crisis. Their president is a former comedian who briefly enjoyed popularity and suddenly became president. [...] But Ukraine is losing its territory and its people are engulfed in a war. The nation's fate cannot be entrusted to someone who is briefly popular and briefly looking good."
Yoon, former prosecutor-general who has never held an elected position, took to attacking Lee's characterization of Zelenskyy as being akin to "putting a dagger in the heart of Ukrainian citizens", and Lee has since apologized. "Russia's act of invasion can never be justified," Lee supplied on Saturday, but it doesn't change the fact that the whole Minjoo party appears to have formed a pact to smear Zelenskyy for the sake of damaging Yoon.
To be fair, the Minjoo hasn't been alone in spreading the narrative that Ukraine has itself to blame for the invasion. Just one day before the invasion, conservative paper Donga Ilbo called Zelenskyy an "amateur president". State-funded broadcaster MBC ran a similar story titled "the Ukrainian President, Risky Leadership" on Friday, only to pull it down one day later after being severely criticized by a South Korea-based Ukrainian TV personality for "spreading fake news".
But the way South Korean media and politicians relate to another country's suffering was entirely to be expected. The country has shortage of expertise on countries that aren't considered strategic partners or major adversaries. The way it views international events is often through the lens of how they influence it.
As China increasingly flexes its muscles—repeating threats against Taiwan, occupying a corner of Bhutan, engaging in skirmishes with India and reinforcing its unrecognized claims on much of the South China Sea—there is considerable anxiety in South Korea, and the choice of several domestic outlets to focus on how China might view the Russian invasion was revealing of that emotion.
Four days into the war, there is still no news about what economic sanctions Seoul will impose against Moscow. That silence, too, is an indication of how the crisis is being viewed by the government: something to be used in talking points but nothing serious or relevant enough to actually demand timely action.
Cover: a screen-capture of the video uploaded to Twitter Saturday by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who addressed the nation in front of the presidential palace in Kyiv to counter rumors that he had fled the country.