The US seeks to integrate NATO more closely into the emerging Asian partnerships, AUKUS and QUAD, while also strengthening cooperation between South Korea, the United States, and Japan. In this context, Washington wants South Korea, as a military power, to establish links with NATO through arms support to Ukraine, writes Valdai Club expert Gu Ho Eom.
In a recent interview with Reuters ahead of his state visit to the United States on April 24-30 to mark the 70th anniversary of the US alliance with South Korea, President Yoon Suk-yeol stated: “If there is a situation the international community cannot condone, such as any large-scale attack on civilians, massacre or serious violation of the laws of war, it might be difficult for us to insist only on humanitarian or financial support.”
Although he emphasised that it would only be conditional weapon support, the statement was highly symbolic because it marked the first time that Seoul has implied a willingness to send weaponry to Ukraine. This was significant given that Seoul has consistently dismissed such notions in the past, maintaining a stance against providing lethal arms in conflicts.
While the Moon Jae-in administration aimed to maintain advantages in balanced relations with both China and the United States, the Yoon Suk-yeol government appears to be attempting a careful change in its existing position towards Russia, prioritizing the restoration of Korea-US-Japan cooperation and the strengthening of the ROK-US alliance. However, the Yoon administration has maintained a cautious stance toward Russia, which is a key partner in its Northern Policy and has influence over the North Korean nuclear issue. As approximately 160 Korean companies operate in Russia, any deterioration in Korea-Russia relations would pose a significant economic burden on South Korea. Furthermore, if military cooperation between North Korea and Russia were to strengthen, it would present an even greater threat to South Korean security. Therefore, it is not easy for South Korea to decide on arms support to Ukraine, despite considerable Western pressure on the Korean government for arms support, as seen in the recent US secret leak scandal.
Surely the primary reason for the US urging South Korea to provide weapons to Ukraine is due to the shortage of critical supplies, including shells, needed to support a prolonged war of attrition; it is also worth noting that the US request also emanates from its broader external strategic considerations.
Firstly, the US views the conflict between the US and Russia caused by the Ukrainian war as gradually being integrated into the framework of competition between the US and China. It is strengthening the link between its security strategies towards Europe and those towards the Asia-Pacific region. As a result, the US seeks to integrate NATO more closely into the emerging Asian partnerships, AUKUS and QUAD, while also strengthening cooperation between South Korea, the United States, and Japan. In this context, Washington wants South Korea, as a military power, to establish links with NATO through arms support to Ukraine.
If the war in Ukraine persists amidst the deepening US-China rivalry, it will be challenging for the US to concentrate its power on the Indo-Pacific strategy. Especially in the Asia-Pacific region, it should be noted that armed clashes may occur simultaneously in multiple conflict zones, such as the South China Sea, the East China Sea, Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, etc., unlike in Europe. Moreover, the lack of a multilateral security framework like NATO will render the US response more complicated than in Europe. Hence, integrating security between Europe and the Asia-Pacific region is a pressing task for the United States.
Secondly, the United States intends to block Russia’s New Eastern Policy, which Russia has implemented since the 2012 APEC summit. The reasons behind Russia’s reinforcement of its New Eastern Policy are as follows: firstly, Russia acknowledged that enhancing its leverage by strengthening economic cooperation with North Korea and supporting the regime is vital for expanding its influence in Northeast Asia, as a response to Western attempts to isolate Russia internationally. Second, Russia has recognized the need to respond to the US pivot to Asia, particularly the US Indo-Pacific strategy. Third, Russia’s need for an alternative Asian market to replace the European energy market has grown.
With this awareness, Russia has elevated its strategic cooperation with China to the highest level, while strengthening energy cooperation with Japan through the northern territorial issue and highlighting trilateral cooperation with South Korea on the North Korean nuclear issue. By recognising that increased economic cooperation between South Korea and Russia, as well as between Japan and Russia, could potentially undermine its Indo-Pacific Strategy, the US may risk causing irreparable damage to both Sino-Japanese and South Korea-Russia relations.
After the Ukrainian conflict, the global order is unlikely to return to its pre-war state because this war involves both geopolitical rivalry and a competition for economic hegemony. It is becoming evident that the world order will have a trifurcation structure: Russia and China, the US/pro-Western bloc, and the Global South, which generally refuses to take sides. As a result, while the post-Ukrainian world order will not result in anarchy, geopolitical competition, an increased emphasis on national sovereignty, and greater economic protectionism are eroding the decades-long system of cooperation. Addressing pressing transnational challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, state failure, food insecurity, poverty, and global health threats will be increasingly difficult in the future. In Northeast Asia, particularly, as the Cold War structure between North Korea, China, Russia and South Korea, the United States and Japan solidifies, a peaceful resolution of problems may become nearly impossible.
Russian Foreign Minister Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded very nervously to President Yoon’s interview with Reuters, saying “we will consider any supplies of weapons to Ukraine, wherever they might come from, as an openly hostile anti-Russian move.” She added that “such steps will negatively impact bilateral relations with those states that take them and will be taken into account when elaborating Russia’s positions on issues concerning the core security interests of the relevant countries. As for South Korea, it might be about the approaches to the settlement of the situation on the Korean Peninsula.”
The reaction from Russia seems to be driven by concerns that South Korea has been indirectly supporting Ukraine through the export of weapons. In 2022, South Korea signed a contract with Poland to export K2 tanks, K9 howitzers, and Chunmu multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), raising concerns that these weapons may be offered finally to Ukraine. Furthermore, there were news reports that South Korea may indirectly export 500,000 155mm artillery shells to the US for use in Ukraine. Additionally, in February of this year, the Korean government expanded its list of export control by adding 741 new items to the existing 57 non-strategic item list that had already been restricted since March of last year.
Security tensions in Northeast Asia are likely to increase in the future, making it more challenging to establish effective problem-solving mechanisms. Even when North Korea escalates its provocations, achieving international consensus on UN sanctions against it will not be easy. Furthermore, the US may be unwilling to tolerate South Korea’s efforts to envision a small-scale multilateral cooperation system involving China and Russia. As a result, the Korean government is facing more difficulties in pursuing practical and balanced diplomacy.
To prevent Korea-Russia relations from being overly influenced by Korea-US relations, Russia should continue its existing forward-looking approach towards the North Korean nuclear issue and peace on the Korean Peninsula.