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  • Hanseul Lee

Two Koreas in Russia-Ukraine War

In this article, the writer explores the changing dynamics of inter-Korean relations in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine War and implications for East Asia security alignment. This article was written by Hanseul Lee and edited by Ruyi Liu.


As the Russia-Ukraine War (2022 - ) has entered its second year, it seems to have wider implications beyond the Balkans. On one hand, South Korea is imposing sanctions on Russia to prevent North Korea from being emboldened to also challenge the global order. On the other hand, North Korea has developed stronger diplomatic ties with Russia to move away from long international isolation. In essence, the war has a considerable impact on the inter-Korean relations and their respective security response to each other.  

These changes in light of the war brought new challenges to the inter-Korean relations. While South Korea has been following the American footsteps in sanctioning Russia in the hope of deterring North Korea’s nuclear policies, North Korea strives to benefit from strengthened Sino-Russian relations. Pyongyang not only aims to exploit the Russia-Ukraine War to overcome its long-lasting international isolation, but also make economic gains from it. As such, the inter-Korean relations are increasingly strained in pursuit of their conflicting strategic aims.

South Korea: Stuck in a Commitment Trap?

After the US sanction on Russia in the first month of the war, South Korea has quickly followed suit. Since March 2022, Seoul has suspended financial transactions with two of Russia's major banks and excluded Moscow from the global financial communications network (SWIFT). Almost a year later, South Korea also banned the export of additional 741 items – a sharp rise from 57 items – that could be potentially used for military purposes.

However, Seoul’s commitment to a strong partnership with the US entailed serious economic consequences. Russia boasts itself as a second-largest natural gas producer worldwide, and comes third in global oil production. South Korean sanctions on Russia were thus a critical blow to Seoul’s domestic steel industry, which relies heavily on Russian crude oil. After the war broke out, South Korea’s annual domestic steel production fell from 70.41 million tons (2021) to 65.64 million tons (2022). In addition, the major top five conglomerates of South Korea have been investing in Russia to widen their markets of Korean automobiles and telecommunication services. Since the South Korean economy is mostly dependent on manufactured goods – electronics, automobiles, telecommunications, shipbuilding, chemicals and steel – it risks self-harming by maintaining its stance on Russia. 

While Seoul cannot totally sever its economic relations with Moscow due to vested business interests, it continues to sanction Russia to deter North Korea from pursuing aggressive nuclear policies, which is a direct threat to Seoul’s security. South Korea’s biggest fear regarding the Russia-Ukraine War is North Korea’s imitation of Russia’s precedent of revising the status quo through territorial invasion should they win the war. North Korea, which has been long isolated in international politics, could also be emboldened to challenge the international order through any means possible. If that would be the case, South Korea would be their first target due to its geographical proximity and the memories of the Korean War. In fact, North Korea consistently launches nuclear missiles targeting South Korea – 36 missiles were tested in 2023 alone – which poses a significant security threat to Seoul. In January 2024, Pyongyang even went further by abolishing key government ministries in charge of promoting cooperation and reunification with South Korea. These series of events only increased Seoul’s fear that Pyongyang could reignite the Korean War as long as they have the model to follow – the victory of Russia in the Russia-Ukraine War. Such a chain of possible reactions is exactly what Seoul does not want to see, especially given that South Korea abides by the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) whereas Pyongyang does not. This is significant because Seoul’s commitment to NPT left South Korea with no nuclear weaponry, thereby relying on the US to counter nuclear attacks from Pyongyang should it take place. 

However, there is no guarantee that Washington will prioritise Seoul under such a situation. In fact, the US is deeply interested in Japan and Taiwan for the security of the Pacifics, as much as it does in Seoul. These indicate that the US is prioritising the trilateral security relationship rather than militarily and financially supporting Seoul through bilateral means. At the Camp David Summit of August 2023, the signatories (the US, South Korea and Japan) already made it clear to commit themselves in the complete denuclearisation of Pyongyang. Although this prospect does not seem probable, signatories already started off 2024 with a three-day joint naval drill to reconfirm its ties with Seoul to counter North Korea. On one hand, it is true that some Koreans are suspicious of Japan’s commitment to collective security due to the historical problem of Japanese colonialism. Nevertheless, Seoul has to coordinate with the trilateral pact because of the need for US security initiatives. Ever since the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) was ratified between the US and South Korea in 1967, the US forces are stationed in Pyeongtaek to deter North Korea. As the US envisions a closer tie between Seoul and Tokyo, Seoul is also willing to stay within the US security umbrella.

Yet at the same time, Seoul is trying not to be fully dependent on the alliance in relation to its nuclear politics. As North Korea reacts back to the aggression through ever-increased nuclear tests and the development of nuclear attack submarines, there are heated domestic debates on whether South Korea, too, should consider developing their own nuclear weapons. South Korea has already observed a number of cases that indicate Washington’s fading involvement in global affairs. Becoming overdependent on the alliance could leave Seoul in a vulnerable position. Essentially, Seoul’s anxiety about the trilateral alliance continues to persist alongside Pyongyang's potential nuclear attack.

North Korea: Turning the War Into An Opportunity

On the other hand, North Korea continues to support Russia. It was one of the five countries that opposed the United Nations General Assembly Resolution against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Recently, North Korea has beenalleged to sell arms to Moscow to help sustain its war. By standing up for Russia in public both unilaterally and at the UN, North Korea anticipates Russian economic aid to alleviate its systemic domestic poverty. North Korea’s economy was heavily hit by COVID-19, as well as the international sanctions on its nuclear program. Not only has its economic growth rate plummeted by 4.5%, but also the sanctions have limited Pyongyang’s major export of coal to China. The export control is both economically and diplomatically significant in isolating Pyongyang. North Korea is heavily dependent on mining its natural resources for domestic energy production and foreign currency exchange. Coal has been the most crucial resource, and the export control left huge burdens on the lives of North Koreans, with sixty percent of the population under the poverty line. In this context, Pyongyang and Moscow have signed an arms deal in 2022, where North Korea supplies arms to Russia in return for Russian aid. In 2022 alone, Pyongyang has received $24.5 billion from Russia to boost its economy, which can help return to a positive economic growth rate in 2024. Reciprocally, following international blame for its purchase of Iranian drones in August 2022, Russia can benefit from North Korea whose bountiful supplies of artillery ammunition including domestic production facilities, present an alternative breakthrough.

In addition, Pyongyang hopes to resist diplomatic isolation by strengthening its ties with Russia. The growing sense of cooperation between the US and South Korea, especially in collective sanctions against Russia, might translate into a stronger existential threat against North Korea. This prediction became closer to reality with the inauguration of President Suk Yeol Yoon in May 2022, who pursues a hardliner North Korea policy compared to that of his predecessor. With an increase in frequency of joint military exercises conducted between the US and South Korea, Pyongyang views a stronger ally as a guarantee for its regime's survival.

North Korea has to pay equal attention to the development of Russia-China relations during the war. Indeed, the strategic partnership between China and Russia is intensively growing; Leveraging access to Russia’s vast natural resources, China has become the biggest Russian trade partner in the midst of international sanctions. The two countries, albeit not a formal alliance, have been cooperating in energy, finance (currency-focused), and infrastructure-technology sectors. After the invasion in Ukraine, Russia has been re-directing its trade focus to China and more keen to invest in China’s Belt and Road Initiative; For instance, the pending project Tongjiang Railway Bridge was finally completed in December 2022 after a joint agreement under BRI in 2008. The bridge effectively reduced delivery times from Heilongjiang to Moscow and diverted traffic from other supply entry points. Indeed, Russia is clearly pivoting toward China as an alternative source to replace the Western role in the Russian economy. This presents a promising prospect for North Korea to strengthen trilateral economic ties between Russia and China. Although the trilateral security bloc was already on the rise even before the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine War, the war highlighted the necessity of a stronger tie between North Korea -Russia-China; depending on the outcome of the war, the balance of power in East Asia may shift to a significant degree.

Implications of the War on inter-Korean Relations

It is clear that relations between the two Koreas are likely to deteriorate following the Russia-Ukraine War. What does this outlook precisely manifest in the core inter-Korean issue, the nuclear politics? As aforementioned, South Korea is actively engaging in joint military operations with the US and Japan to counter North Korean nuclearization. Due to increased joint military exercises, North Korea also increased their missile tests to South Korean territorial waters. In essence, Russia-Ukraine War serves as a test to the capability of the US-RoK-Japan alliance – if Pyongyang successfully imitates the Russian precedent to attack Seoul, the security architecture in East Asia is likely to have significant repercussions, leading into greater regional instability. it seems likely that the two Koreas will develop diplomatic and economic ties with separate regional blocs. The Russia-Ukraine war, therefore, is just a beginning to a new chapter of inter-Korean relations.

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