South Korea Must Pick a Side

Russia’s war in Ukraine has shown the “shrimp among whales” that hedging is no longer a viable foreign policy.

By , a South Korean journalist based in Seoul.
People hold candles during a rally to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine near the Russian Embassy in Seoul on March 4.
People hold candles during a rally to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine near the Russian Embassy in Seoul on March 4.
People hold candles during a rally to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine near the Russian Embassy in Seoul on March 4. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

When foreign media and the international community criticized the South Korean government’s response to Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, the Moon Jae-in administration seemed baffled.

For weeks leading up to the war, Seoul had distanced itself from the U.S.-led sanctions campaign on Russia. This was because it deemed punitive measures detrimental to its relations with the country, which holds some sway over North Korea and is a critical export market for South Korean household electronics.

This reaction was “[q]uite something from a key US partner in Asia that relies for its existence on the security guarantees of others,” Christian Davies, the Financial Times’ Seoul correspondent, tweeted shortly after the invasion.

When foreign media and the international community criticized the South Korean government’s response to Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, the Moon Jae-in administration seemed baffled.

For weeks leading up to the war, Seoul had distanced itself from the U.S.-led sanctions campaign on Russia. This was because it deemed punitive measures detrimental to its relations with the country, which holds some sway over North Korea and is a critical export market for South Korean household electronics.

This reaction was “[q]uite something from a key US partner in Asia that relies for its existence on the security guarantees of others,” Christian Davies, the Financial Times’ Seoul correspondent, tweeted shortly after the invasion.

The Moon administration “could not comprehend” the bad press, according to presidential communications secretary Park Soo-hyun. “There are Korean companies and nationals in Russia. Our trade volume has been growing, and we can’t just disregard those things,” Park told the South Korean broadcaster TBS a day after the war began. “Do they honestly expect us to impose independent sanctions?”

The answer was yes. Sanctions were exactly what the global community expected from a key U.S. ally that has declared itself a “full-fledged democracy” and flaunted its new “advanced nation” status, brushing shoulders with the major powers at the G-7 summit last year. But instead of showing diplomatic initiative, Seoul’s reluctance to align itself with the global tide against Moscow knocked it off its own pedestal.

“South Korea was out of step,” said Evans Revere, a former U.S. principal deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. “Not only out of step with the United States, but out of step with the international community, undermining the perception of international solidarity among democratic and allied countries.”

On the eve of Russia’s invasion, while other governments were coordinating efforts on sanctions and engaging in shuttle diplomacy to prevent war in Europe, Moon ordered “urgent measures” and emergency meetings to protect South Korean exporters. When the invasion occurred, the South Korean president did not condemn it, nor did he make a public address. In brief comments relayed by Park, Moon expressed “regret” over the situation.

Moon ultimately caved to U.S. pressure on sanctions, saying South Korea would partake in global efforts to de-escalate the conflict but offering no details on how or when they would be implemented. This was a classic example of the country’s approach to foreign policy, which is characterized by hedging: an avoidance of sensitive issues aimed at buttressing trade relations.


South Koreans have long identified their country as a “shrimp among whales,” a reference to its precarious position between bigger regional powers. Wedged between China, Mongolia, and Japan—which have each vied for regional dominance over the centuriesactive hedging and strategic ambiguity have been vital to South Korea’s sovereignty and security.

Today, South Korea generally balances its relations with major regional actors so as not to inflame its greatest security challenge: a nuclear-armed North Korea. For the last seven decades, Seoul has bolstered its bilateral ties and security alliances with Washington. At the same time, it has also sought to build amicable relations with Beijing and Moscow based on trade and investment due to their influence over Pyongyang as well as their geographical proximity and economic growth potential.

The golden years of globalization in the 1990s and early 2000s helped Seoul use free trade and economic cooperation to strengthen its diplomatic prowess. Key here was avoiding political sensitivities: Seoul kept mum on human rights and territorial disputes in the South China Sea and Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

In 2003, China became South Korea’s largest trading partner and most popular investment destination, and China-bound shipments now account for more than 27 percent of South Korea’s total exports. Around 2007 and 2008, Russia became a key export market as well, with Samsung and LG dominating sales of household electronics and opening regional production hubs. Hyundai, meanwhile, built its sixth overseas factory in St. Petersburg. Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the opening ceremony in 2010, test-driving a sedan.

Heightening tension between the United States and China during the 2007- 2008 global financial crisis made it increasingly difficult for South Korea to put business before geopolitics. To their credit, the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations attempted to play a bridging role between Washington and Beijing, pursuing non-security initiatives to promote regional peace and cooperation. However, these attempts at being a middle power failed.

With a growing nuclear threat from North Korea—and Beijing ignoring phone calls from Seoul—Park Geun-hye decided to side with the United States. Her administration in 2016 agreed to install the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in South Korea, to the fury of China, which saw it as a form of U.S. deterrence against Beijing. Over the course of 18 months, the Chinese government made sure Seoul paid for its insolence, retaliating with heavy economic and travel boycotts that wiped out more than $15 billion from the South Korean economy in the tourism sector alone by the end of 2017.

This should have been a wake-up call that hedging was not a viable policy, said Bruce W. Bennett, a defense researcher at the Rand Corp. “The South Korean government should have realized a free economic system is important, but economics is tied to politics and China uses economics as a powerful weapon,” he said.

Yet, the Moon administration took a step backward, attempting a “double allegiance” to Washington and Beijing in hopes of advancing on inter-Korean diplomacy. Moon expressed support for U.S. Indo-Pacific initiatives and increased South Korea’s contributions to shared defense costs. At the same time, he refused to drop Chinese 5G networks, diplomatically boycott the Beijing Olympics, raise the issue of human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, or mention China’s aggression toward Taiwan in a joint declaration with U.S. President Joe Biden last May.

Seoul’s reluctance to align itself with the global tide against Moscow knocked it off its own pedestal.

Moon’s tenure has featured no tangible results or progress on inter-Korean peace or denuclearization. Hedging had only caused friction in South Korea’s alliance with the United States, and its ambiguity on geopolitical issues has ruptured its credibility with other countries, too. A 2020 survey of countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for example, showed a critically low level of trust in South Korea when it came to “maintaining the rules-based order and upholding international law.” It then came as no surprise when Moon’s New Southern Policy, which aimed to expand cooperation with ASEAN, largely failed to take off.

“South Korea appears to have internalized Beijing’s economic leverage in its foreign-policy calculation and refrained from criticizing China’s human rights violations,” said Son Daekwon, a professor of international relations at Sogang University’s Graduate School of International Studies.

Come Feb. 24, the Moon government still had not learned its lesson. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, South Korea was “hedging again to almost an embarrassing degree,” said Revere, the former U.S. official. He pointed out that Germany—which has much closer ties to Russia than does South Korea—halted the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and even Switzerland decided this was no time for neutrality, adopting wide-ranging sanctions and freezing Russian assets.

“This crisis is a test of whether South Korea is going to stand by the United States and the international community during a moment of need. And very few people in the leadership in Seoul got that,” Revere said.

Moon’s officials were horrified to discover that Seoul was not included in the list of 32 trusted countries exempt from the U.S. Commerce Department’s Foreign Direct Product Rule (FDPR), which requires foreign firms using U.S. technology to seek approval from Washington before exporting their products to Russia. This could severely compromise Samsung’s and LG’s leading market share in household appliances and mobiles in the country.

Four days after the FDPR list was released, the Moon government decided that it would impose independent sanctions on Russia after all, as a “responsible member of the international community.” It was clear among leadership in Seoul that there was no more room for strategic ambiguity and that further missteps could lead to damaging and entirely self-inflicted consequences for South Korea’s export-dependent economy.

Most Seoul-based analysts have already ruled out the possibility of South Korea being accepted as a member of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major Japan-led trade deal, given the country’s ongoing dispute with Tokyo over historical issues. But if it continues to remain ambiguous on counterbalancing China, Seoul also faces the risk of missing out on the Biden administration’s new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) initiative, a trade policy announced last October that aims to strengthen trade, investment, and economic ties between the United States and its partner countries in the region.

“It is critically important for South Korea to be included in the IPEF,” said Oh Joon-seok, a professor of business at Sookmyung Women’s University and president of the Korea Tax Research Forum. It would be damaging for the South Korean economy if it were to be excluded from the IPEF because of its heavy reliance on the export of semiconductors and communications technology.

A Feb. 24 U.S. congressional paper said the IPEF “could potentially include South Korea,” which equally implies it may not. “In the end, the degree to which the South Korean companies and government support the free part of the world will be really telling in terms of what the world is prepared to do for South Korea,” said Bennett, the Rand researcher.

Whether Seoul will look beyond its own interests and live up to its new role in global governance is its decision alone. A change in foreign policy is desired not only by international observers but also by the South Korean people.

In the past, the South Korean public’s polarized views on relations with Washington and Beijing had led to “oscillating between two extremes in foreign policy,” according to Son, the international relations professor. Conservatives have pursued stronger security ties with the United States and alignment with Western values, while progressive South Koreans have been skeptical about the U.S. presence in East Asia, showing greater preference for relations with China. However, with China’s growing aggression, negative sentiment toward Beijing has grown from 37 percent in 2015 to 77 percent in 2021, according to a Pew Research Center survey. By contrast, 77 percent of South Koreans see the U.S. in a positive light.

“As the [South Korea]-U.S. alliance expands from a security to value-based alliance, South Koreans have started to see Washington not only as a ‘peninsula defender’ but a ‘regional stabilizer,’ and are likely to become more expressive about their common values such as human rights and democracy,” Son said.

The war in Ukraine has underscored this changing dynamic. While the Moon government dithered, members of the public have actively voiced their support for the Ukrainian resistance, protesting outside the Russian Embassy in Seoul, donating over $3 million to support humanitarian assistance for the people of Ukraine, and calling on their own government to do more.

With conservative President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol set to take office in two months’ time, it’s quite possible Seoul will respond positively to that plea.

Reacting to the Russian invasion, the incoming president said that South Koreans, including himself, will support the Ukrainian people in their fight against Russia.

“It is very natural for many free countries, including South Korea, to condemn and participate in sanctions against Russia’s invasion, which is clearly a violation of international law,” Yoon said on Feb. 24.

Yoon has affirmed that Seoul-Washington ties will be the “central axis” of his foreign policy, which is what nearly 90 percent of South Koreans want, according to an April 4 report published by the Federation of Korean Industries.

With its GDP now among the world’s 10 largest, and its military power in the top six, South Korea’s place in the world is no longer shrimp-sized. Seoul’s actions should reflect this. It’s no longer a question of choice of whose side to take—it’s a matter of facing up to responsibility.

Sooyoung Oh is a South Korean journalist based in Seoul. She currently anchors a daily current affairs program on Arirang TV, covering major news stories related to East Asia. She previously worked as a Seoul correspondent for United Press International. Twitter: @jennie_jojo

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