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[Editorial] Let Ukraine be a lesson

Strategic ambiguity not the way to go as US, allies close ranks against Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops to “maintain peace” in two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, after recognizing them as independent states. Then US President Joe Biden said Russia had begun “an invasion” of Ukraine and announced a new sanctions package against Russia.

For starters, Russia’s aggression is an illegal act of war on a sovereign state. Putin said “to maintain peace” but it is nothing but a pretext to whitewash violent infringement upon the territory and sovereignty of Ukraine.

The Ukraine situation may signal the New Cold War represented by a military confrontation between the West and Russia. For South Korea, the Ukraine crisis is not a fire across the river to look on with folded arms. The Korean Peninsula is a flashpoint that may be more dangerous than Ukraine. South Korea, a US ally, and North Korea, an ally of China and Russia, square off against each other, divided by the military demarcation line.

South Korea exports semiconductors, cars and electronic appliances to Russia. So, Washington is likely to ask South Korea to join or cooperate with export control sanctions against Russia sometime in the future. Economic damage will be inevitable if South Korea joins the sanctions. And yet it cannot keep up strategic ambiguity if the US and other allies keep closing ranks.

If South Korea looks away from allies when crisis befalls one of them, then they will likely look away when it faces crises of its own. Considering the possibility of North Korea escalating provocations to make the most of the New Cold War confrontation, the South Korean government needs to show a willingness toward international cooperation. Taking the Ukraine crisis as a lesson, it must try to keep the US alliance solid.

But Cheong Wa Dae’s evasive attitude is worrisome in that it may weaken allies’ mutual trust. It is doubtful that South Korea can cope with crises by itself if allies look away or hesitate when an emergency occurs on the Korean Peninsula.

On Russia sanctions, a senior US administration official said: “We announced our first tranche of sanctions in less than a day with Allies and partners from the European Union, from the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, and Australia.“ This means that the US had close prior consultations with allies in preparing sanctions. South Korea was not mentioned.

President Moon Jae-in presided over a meeting on national security and economic strategy on Tuesday, but he did not denounce Russia’s invasion directly. He said the United States and Western countries condemned Russia’s actions and that they are preparing sanctions. He sounded like a stranger. On whether to join sanctions, he said there remains a possibility.

He said the government must try not to let the Ukraine situation hinder its efforts to activate the peace process for the Korean Peninsula. He is still hanging on to plans to declare the end of the Korean War and then sign peace accords. The Moon administration has cried out for peace almost blindly. But the peace in mind North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has is different from what people think of. He talked peace as a means to demand the easing of sanctions.

Peace is a value that must be pursued, but the Ukraine crisis showed that peace is not necessarily kept on an international stage just by asserting peace. Peace not buttressed with power is nothing but a sand castle.

North Korea and China are watching attentively how the United States and its allies including South Korea will respond to Russia’s actions on Ukraine. Moon’s passivity on going together with allies will lower their confidence in South Korea. There are no rules that a similar crisis facing Ukraine will not befall South Korea, if the US alliance reels under distrust.

By Korea Herald (
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