The Ukraine crisis is a confrontation between the US and Russia to take the initiative in the world order. In other words, it is a military conflict between the US, which is trying to prevent the emergence of a hegemonic state in the post-Soviet region in order to maintain a unipolar system at the global level, and Russia, which is trying to become a hegemonic state in the post-Soviet region in order to help establish a multipolar system at the global level.
Transition period in the formation of a new world order
Historically, military conflicts that have led to changes in the world order have not necessarily occurred only between hegemonic states at the global level and challenging states with comparable national power. The war over hegemony began in various ways on the geopolitical fault line, and it has always been difficult to predict the development process and its consequences.
In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, the existing world order and its principles, which have operated on the premise of US hegemony for the past 30 years, are being destroyed. Although the outcome of the war is still unclear, some are paying attention to the possibility of a bipolar system forming, in which the US and China are each responsible for one axis due to Russia’s loss of its power status, while some are focusing on the possibility of a multipolar system forming, led by the US, China, Russia, and several other powers together. Other experts also point to aspects of “international disorder”. The world order is clearly changing. However, it seems that the world order has yet to find a place between the “new Cold War”, in which states cooperate around two superpowers and are divided into two camps, and the “multipolar order”, in which several major powers with strategic autonomy repeatedly reorganize for cooperation and conflict, depending on the issue. This transition period also poses new challenges for South Korea, which is thousands of kilometres away from the battlefield in Ukraine.
Reduction of South Korea’s diplomatic autonomy
Over the past 30 years, South Korea has made efforts to weaken the confrontation between the Northern Triangle (North Korea, China, and Russia) and the Southern Triangle (South Korea, the US, and Japan) regardless of the changes of its government. Cooperation between South Korea and Russia has played a role in alleviating the confrontational structure between the Northern and Southern Triangles, and based on this, Korea has been able to secure diplomatic autonomy. However, the Ukraine crisis strengthened solidarity between China and Russia, and the US reaffirmed its commitments on extended deterrence in the terms of the trilateral partnership between Korea, the US, and Japan. In addition, as President Yoon Suk-yeol twice attended the NATO summit and the leaders’ meeting of the four Asia-Pacific partners (AP4), South Korea is too deeply involved in the link between the US-led Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific alliances, so-called “anti-Russia and anti-China solidarity”.
Crisis in South Korea-Russia relations
Since the start of Russia’s special military operation, relations between South Korea and Russia have cooled as South Korea has raised its level of economic sanctions against Russia and Russia has designated South Korea as a so-called “unfriendly country”. In addition, on July 27, 2022, South Korea signed a contract with Poland for the export and licensed production of tanks, self-propelled artillery, and fighter aircraft, and on November 10 of the same year, according to a Wall Street Journal report, the US decided to purchase 100,000 155mm artillery shells from South Korea. These transactions could be interpreted as South Korea’s indirect military support for Ukraine. Despite President Putin’s direct warning on October 27, 2022 that the supply of weapons and ammunitions to Ukraine would destroy South Korea-Russia relations, President Yoon Seok-yeol said in an interview with Reuters that South Korea could provide aid beyond humanitarian or financial support if the civilian population of Ukraine was hit by a large-scale attack. Furthermore, President Yoon Seok-yeol visited Kiev on July 15, 2023 and stressed, “The current situation in Ukraine reminds me of the Republic of Korea 70 years ago. If we fight together in strong solidarity with the spirit of life and death, we will surely be able to protect our freedom and democracy.”
However, it should not be forgotten that Russia not only neighbours Korea geographically; it is also a related country that can exert influence on denuclearisation and the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. Changes in the world order may provide opportunities for the development of South Korea-Russia relations in the long term. Russia will still want to expand economic cooperation with South Korea, as its relationship with Japan, a key US ally in Northeast Asia, has already collapsed, and an overreliance on China could cause long-term concerns. Therefore, while the room for manoeuvre is limited for the time being, it is also necessary to prepare to seek the development of relations with Russia at various levels.
Problems on the Korean Peninsula
On September 8, 2022, North Korea formalised its status as a nuclear power through the legislation of its “nuclear forces policy”. Currently, Russia and China cannot afford to pay attention to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula as they are confronting US-led anti-Russia and anti-China solidarity. Against this backdrop, North Korea is expected to continue developing nuclear weapons and missiles, taking advantage of the disorder caused by changes in the world order, while attempting to negotiate disarmament with the US on the premise of possessing nuclear weapons. Therefore, it may be necessary to seek an alternative to the peace process on the Korean Peninsula, which presupposes North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons as a “de facto” premise.
Prior to the Ukraine crisis, Russia and Ukraine had maintained a mutually beneficial relationship in all areas of economic cooperation, including trade and investment, but eventually military conflict was inevitable. Although the US, which has a low level of economic cooperation with Russia, has served as a key variable, the Ukraine crisis has confirmed that no matter how great the economic benefits of cooperation, military conflict could break out at any time if a security dilemma persists. This means that no matter how much economic interdependence increases through inter-Korean economic cooperation, war may break out at any moment if the security dilemma is not resolved.
Balanced diplomacy vs. strengthening alliance
Meanwhile, in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, the discourse of “balanced diplomacy” lost its power and the discourse of “strengthening alliance” become overwhelmingly influential in South Korean society. If “strengthening alliance” is an effort to prevent war through alliance deterrence, “balanced diplomacy” is an attempt to prevent war through multi-vector diplomacy. Therefore, it is important to balance the two logics in order to prevent a war, in which both the South and the North are bound to be losers on the Korean Peninsula. The real victory is not to win the war, but to prevent it from happening. Joseon, a kingdom that existed on the Korean Peninsula from 1392 to 1910, had to undergo two major war periods - the Japanese invasions (1592-1598) and the Qing invasion (1636-1637) - in the 16th and 17th centuries, because it could not carefully read the changes in Northeast Asian order. One of them ended in Pyrrhic victory, and the other in surrender. History can be repeated, but mistakes must not be repeated.