Concerns are rising over the possible ramifications of the deepening Crimean crisis on South Korea’s diplomacy and security as the standoff, if not properly tamped down, could foment Cold War-like tensions globally.
Experts say that the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War could put Seoul in a difficult diplomatic position, particularly when it seeks to strengthen its strategic ties with Moscow and traditional alliance with Washington.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree recognizing Ukraine’s Crimea province as an independent state on Monday, a day after the breakaway region voted overwhelmingly to leave Ukraine and join Russia.
The Kremlin’s moves, which the West says violate international law and norms, came amid threats of “far-reaching” economic sanctions by the U.S. and the EU.
For Seoul, one major concern is that it could be forced to join anti-Moscow sanctions, which would seriously hurt bilateral relations. Seoul’s moves in favor of the West could derail a set of joint projects including Seoul’s Eurasia Initiative, which aims to connect energy and logistics infrastructure across the continent.
“Seoul could be driven into a strategic dilemma. Joining any U.S.-led sanctions against Russia would damage its ties with Russia, while it can’t take either side in the conflict as doing so would undermine its interests,” said Lee Sang-hyun, a senior research fellow at the think tank Sejong Institute.
“For now, Seoul can only hold on to its basic position that the standoff should be settled through the international community’s universal conflict resolution practices and, of course, through peaceful procedures.”
Seoul has sought to deepen ties with Moscow as it believes Russia has increasing strategic value in terms of economics, cooperation on North Korea’s denuclearization and regional security.
The two-way trade volume between South Korea and Russia exceeded $20 billion in 2011 for the first time and reached $22.5 billion in 2012. Last November, the two former Cold War adversaries signed a visa-waiver program in a symbolic move to further bolster their strategic ties.
“Should the conflict between the U.S. and Russia further escalate, this would have negative impacts on the world economy, politics and security. This would also impact Seoul, a key ally of the U.S.,” said Kim Heung-kyu, diplomacy professor at Ajou University.
“How Seoul deals with this case is very important and will affect future cooperation with Russia considering that Russia has emerged as a crucial partner in various aspects ― a reason why Seoul needs to look at the case from a long-term, strategic perspective.”
Another concern about the standoff over the separatist region is that the crisis could send the “wrong” message to North Korea as it adheres to its nuclear adventurism to secure its regime’s survival.
Ukraine abandoned its nuclear program under a 1994 deal with major powers including the U.S. and Russia, under which world leaders pledged to safeguard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic.
“The Ukraine denuclearization case has long been cited as a crucial precedent for the resolution of the North Korean nuclear standoff,” said Kim.
“But this ongoing showdown shows that the (1994) deal to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty is not working well and this is expected to make it even tougher for the world to persuade Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear arms.”
The increasing tension reminiscent of the Cold War era may also pose a hurdle to South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s initiative to promote peace and stability in Northeast Asia.
Under her ambitious drive, Park has sought to overcome what she calls the “Asia paradox,” referring to the region’s deepening economic interdependence in contrast to its escalating territorial rows and historical animosities.
The drive seeks to encourage the participation of all regional players including Russia, China and the U.S., but the negative developments on the Crimean Peninsula could deal a blow to Park’s initiative.
Some experts pointed out that on a positive note, the deepening showdown between the U.S. and Russia could help mitigate the intensifying rivalry between the U.S. and China, which could also pose a diplomatic dilemma to South Korea.
Amid the conflict over Crimea, Washington may seek to minimize any confrontation with Beijing, while Beijing would also exercise restraint given that an escalation of the conflict would hurt its economy as well. China has so far remained largely reticent about the crisis, merely calling for restraint and caution in dealing with the issue.
The Crimean crisis has triggered a flurry of debates in academia over whether it could lead to a new Cold War. Yet, many analysts say that chances of another Cold War remain low, largely due to the economic catastrophe that another international conflict could bring about.
“U.S. President Barack Obama appears to have no willingness or intention for now to take aggressive action with regard to the Crimean case. As there was only tough-taking in the Syrian and Iranian cases, I think there will be just tough talk again for this case,” said Park Won-gon, a political science professor at Handong Global University.
“Japan, for instance, may also want to avoid any escalation of the case as it has sought to maintain good relations with Russia and extricate itself from diplomatic isolation stemming from its territorial and historical feuds with neighboring states.”
It remains to be seen whether Russia might go further to absorb the Crimean Peninsula into its federation and risk an economic blockade, analysts said. But what is clear is that Moscow will maintain its strategic presence on the peninsula, where it stations its strategic Black Sea Fleet.
By Song Sang-ho (email@example.com