The Ukraine war has posed a unique challenge for Asia’s democracies.
The conflict is far away, it involves cultures distinct from this region and its impacts will be most directly felt in Eastern Europe. Russia’s complaints and motivations mostly concern the West, particularly the post-Cold War European settlement that significantly reduced Russian power there. Inevitably then, the West’s response has been the most active; it is in the firing line.
But there are Asian ramifications, too, which Japan, to its credit, seems to have grasped. Despite its long hesitation on the use of sanctions at odds with the regular use of sanctions by its American ally Tokyo appears to have decided that this Russian aggression needs to be punished. The Russian invasion is blatant imperialism.
Were Russia to get away with absorbing a smaller neighbour as the world watched, it would send a powerful signal to China that it could do the same to Taiwan. That would be a direct security threat to Japan. And Russian tactics the purposeful shelling of civilian areas and the operation of death squads to murder civilians en masse have been a moral shock. Japan’s decision to support the sanctioning of Russia looks increasingly like the right call.
By contrast, South Korea’s response has been a mixed bag.
When the war started, Seoul’s response was hesitant and ambiguous, provoking a wave of international criticism that the government neither seemed to understand, nor knew how to respond to.
The first response of South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s administration was fear for South Korean exports to Russia. Lee Jae-myung, the leftist candidate in the recent presidential election at the time, blamed Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy for provoking the invasion, which brought another wave of social media backlash. For days, it was not clear if Seoul would support the sanctions regime. South Korea only came around when the US threatened a trade exemption its exporters need.
South Korean civil society then began to protest their government’s foot-dragging, and the war arguably helped hawkish, conservative candidate Yoon Seok-yeol win the presidential election.
And just this week, when Zelenskyy addressed the South Korean Parliament, the turn-out of legislators to listen was embarrassingly low only about 60 out of 300.
The Korean Defense Ministry has also refused to send Ukraine weapons, claiming rather implausibly given South Korea’s enormous conventional advantage over North Korea that arms transfers would reduce its security. This provoked yet another round of domestic criticism about South Korea dodging the responsibilities it should carry if it wishes to be a global pivotal state.
Much of this confusion stems from the nationalist, arguably isolationist, tenor of the outgoing government. President Moon’s leftist coalition often looks askance at US-led international efforts:
This administration has been highly critical of sanctions on North Korea, and it frequently ignored sanctions requirements during Moon’s outreach to North Korea of the last few years. Although North Korea has been sanctioned multilaterally at the UN level, which also binds South Korea as a member of the UN the Moon government has made no effort to monitor sanctions. The South Korean left has generally refused to accept global anxieties about North Korean nuclear weapons, insisting that North Korea is solely a Korean problem that foreigners should stay out of.
Similarly, Moon’s government has danced around China’s rising power and growing belligerence under current President Xi Jinping. Moon has remained cool to Taiwanese security concerns, cooperation with Japan on China, the plight of Chinese Muslims and the “Quad,” the informal Chinese blocking coalition of the US, Japan, Australia and India. Keeping a low profile on Ukraine has partly been to avoid a collision with China which has supported Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war.
Finally, Moon has been quite mercantilist, placing the narrow export interests of South Korea’s largest companies at the centre of national policy.
His government has ducked the growing anxiety about trading with China and Russia that trade helps those belligerent powers grow even stronger. Moon accepted Chinese-demanded limitations on South Korean military options to insure the trading relationship and his government’s first impulse on the Ukraine war was again to cater to South Korean exporters.
Moon’s presidency ends on May 10. His more hawkish successor, Yoon, will likely lean more into support for Ukraine and coordinate more clearly with the US and European Union on Russia sanctions implementation.
Yoon seems to grasp the dangers of trading with dictatorships better than Moon does and that politics national security, sovereignty and national values are ultimately more important than economics, running a trade surplus and the profits of a few megacorporations.
More generally though, South Korea’s ambivalence on the Ukraine war illustrates a problem for all democracies in deep trading relationships with autocracies. That economic interdependence generates leverage for those autocracies over democracies’ policy choices.
South Korean citizens, to their credit, pushed their government toward tougher action. Particularly as Putin’s war crimes have become public, South Korean opinion, as in most democracies, has begun to harden.
But the government’s instinct, going back months before the invasion started, was to do nothing, to keep quiet despite Seoul’s pretension to global “status” so as not to jeopardise South Korean investments or markets by doing the right thing. This impulse to look away in order to keep market access is endemic. This is how Germany got so dependent on Russian gas.
Inappropriately elevating economics over politics like this will be even more troublesome when it comes to China. Beijing already has a history of using economic leverage generated by trade as a policy weapon. And South Korea is far more dependent on Chinese importers than on Russia.
This problem will worsen as Chinese belligerence worsens, and the best thing Yoon can do is slowly de-link South Korea’s economy from China to restore full South Korean sovereignty.