When the first artillery and rockets struck targets in Ukraine on February 24, 2022, South Koreans were having their lunch break that same Thursday. Topics of the day were the upcoming South Korean presidential elections in less than two weeks and the ever-changing situation with COVID-19. It took until late that afternoon for South Korean media to realize that a full-scale attack had been launched against the Ukrainian people. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reminded South Koreans of their own precarious situation and highlights the security dangers that they too face. However, the current mood of South Korean society is calm, which could be more about citizens being resigned to their fate, as opposed to being a sign of confidence in their ability to handle the aforementioned situation.
Ukraine and the Presidential Election
The resolve of the Ukrainian people and President Volodymyr Zelensky’s leadership has inspired many South Koreans, echoing how their own freedom came at a high cost. It serves as a stark reminder that the Korean War, which began in 1950, is still not over. While there are many in South Korea these days who would seek peace above all else—the archaic idiom that “better red than dead” seems to have renewed appeal—most recall the enormous sacrifices made during the Korean War to win our own freedom from the tyranny of the North and have empathy for Ukraine.
Because the Russian invasion occurred during a very crucial stage in the South Korean presidential election, citizens were divided over how to best understand the war in Ukraine along with how South Korea should respond and how it all relates to the threat of North Korea (DPRK). Initially, the progressive government of Moon Jae-in fumbled its own response. Instead of making a clear and strong statement against the violence being committed against Ukraine by Russia, Moon seems to have been more concerned about his relationship with Vladimir Putin and salvaging economic relations rather than taking a stand. Another example of political priorities taking precedence over good sense was progressive candidate Lee Jae-myoung’s remarks about Volodymyr Zelensky, claiming that Zelensky had “spurred the attack by the Russians because he was a novice in politics with only six months of experience as a politician, which led to publicly calling for a membership in NATO.” He later apologized for the remarks that appeared to be aimed at pointing out the potential consequences of presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol’s inexperience. That said, the conservatives were no better in condemning Putin, except that they used stronger language to denounce the attack.
South Korea (the Republic of Korea, or ROK) is being confronted with the reality the world is changing for the worse and that trying to act as a balance between greater powers is more than difficult; it’s actually impossible when trading with countries that have conflicting interests. However, while many nations are in a similar predicament, South Korea has a unique and critical relationship with the United States for ensuring its own security.
It is my observation that to most South Koreans, the war in Ukraine has highlighted the importance of the ROK-US Alliance and the need to strengthen South Korean military capabilities, as these two factors serve as guarantees for peace on the Korean Peninsula. Surely, South Koreans are taking note of the actions that are currently being taken by the US, which seem to be measured and effective at this juncture. The US has contained the Russians at Ukraine’s borders while simultaneously supplying mass quantities of military arms and implementing an effective economic blockade against Russia. One thing South Koreans are certain of is that the difference between war and no war, especially with a larger, nuclear-armed adversary, is a US troop presence on your soil. In my opinion, the cost-benefit of having US troops in Korea should and must be a central part of the lesson from this current, ongoing war in Eastern Europe.
An extension of this belief is the importance of having the United Nations Command (UNC) in Korea. North Korea has been alleging that the UNC’s presence is unlawful, claiming it is actually a US military organization that promotes US interests on the Korean Peninsula. The Moon administration has not been supportive of a revitalized UNC and has been suspicious of its activities in maintaining the Korean Armistice Agreement. This line of thinking is widespread among South Korean progressives and dangerous, to say the least. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated how difficult, if not impossible, it is to create an international military effort that is supported by the United Nations (UN). On the other hand, the ROK already has a mandate from the UN that guarantees the security of the South Korean people. While North Korea attacking such an organization is to be expected, South Koreans find such logic difficult to understand.
The thinking of many South Korean progressives is that since there is no security threat from North Korea, there is no need to worry. Their logic is that the DPRK has nuclear weapons for defensive purposes only, which would then only be used on South Koreans if provoked. They view the DPRK as an impoverished country that cannot conduct a war against the ROK, which has the sixth-largest military in the world. However, this line of thinking comes across as naive as it implies that South Korea is not reliant upon organizations like the UNC being involved in inter-Korean relations and takes the presence of US forces on the peninsula for granted. The war in Ukraine shines a spotlight on the harsh reality that dictatorships, such as North Korea, Russia and China, are able to start a war and use violence to achieve political goals, especially when armed with nuclear weapons.
On the other hand, conservatives in South Korea appear to underestimate the survival instincts of the Kim family and the uncanny resilience of the North Korean regime. The biggest mistake of the last two conservative governments in South Korea was that they thought that Kim Jong Un was not going to last, thereby underestimating the resolve and capability of North Korea.
South Koreans were immediately aware that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would affect them one way or another, but it was unclear what the actual ramifications on their daily lives would be. Then, whether by design or coincidence, the DPRK conducted tests claiming to be related to reconnaissance satellite development in clear violation of international law. Despite very clear and strong warnings being issued, there should be no doubt that North Korea will launch or test a “satellite” very soon. Satellite technology is a means to improve the DPRK’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and is a direct threat to the US. Furthermore, North Korea has now also launched ICBMs—whether the new Hwasong-17 or the older Hwasong-15—in recent weeks, the first tests since 2017.
It would seem that Kim Jong Un is betting that the United States’ preoccupation with the war in Ukraine, not to mention the effective paralysis of the UN Security Council at the moment, provides North Korea with an opportunity to conduct these activities with few consequences. Even if Kim achieves his goals, it will be at the price of whatever good faith that was built during the diplomatic process over the last five years and will serve to strengthen the position of US and ROK hardliners. South Korean conservatives are already committed to large-scale exercises and discarding the Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA), all of which will heighten tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea resuming its nuclear activities is not only the problem, as it is also running an active program to continue to develop its tactical weapons. The DPRK continues to arm itself with SA-16 man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) that are similar to the highly-effective US Stinger missile, along with its own version of the Kornet, the Bulsae (불새) anti-tank missile that rivals the US Javelin anti-tank missile. These systems are not new, but the war in Ukraine exemplifies the effectiveness of such weapons against a superior army. Both Ukraine and Russia have called for international fighters to join the fight, and thousands have volunteered on both sides of this war. Russia has also asked for Chinese support with logistics like field rations, though it seems unlikely to remain limited to this scope. As such, it is worth considering the possibility of a North Korean contingent disguising itself as Chinese or going as itself and assisting the Russians in exchange for technological and firsthand experience in areas such as cyber hacking.
Finally, South Korea needs to realize the importance of having the moral high ground in war. Recently, the use of first strike options was debated as an election issue. Had the Ukrainians conducted a preemptive strike against a certain Russian attack, it calls into question whether the European Union/North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States could have provided Ukraine the support we see now.
South Koreans understand that the economic sanctions being levied on Russia are comprehensive and, despite the ripple effects these sanctions will have on the world’s economy, are necessary for assisting Ukraine and pressuring Russia into ending their aggression. Nonetheless, when inflation hits, it will make clear to the ROK what its stance in the world should be, how closely connected things are and that the role of a middle state comes with both prestige and a great deal of responsibility. Two takeaways for South Korea to consider in the midst of all of this should be what it needs to do to truly strengthen the US-ROK alliance and what its military modernization priorities should be.
However, the biggest lesson for South Korea right now is: if you want peace, you need to prepare for war.