South Korea’s Security and Foreign Policy after the War in Ukraine

South Korea’s Security and Foreign Policy after the War in Ukraine

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, South Korea was late to adopt sanctions against Russia. Although the Moon Jae-in administration made clear that Ukraine’s sovereignty should be protected, the delay was likely the Moon administration’s awareness that it needs Russia’s help to establish a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. By contrast, when then-presidential candidate, Yoon Seok-yeol from the conservative People’s Power Party, met with the Ukrainian Ambassador-designate, Dmytro Ponomarenko, on March 2nd, Yoon condemned Russia’s invasion, saying: “It is quite natural that many free countries, including the Republic of Korea – which loves peace and respects the international norms-based order – condemn the illegal Russian invasion and participate in sanctions.”[i]

The Moon Jae-in administration’s aspiration for establishing a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula may be the hope of many Koreans. Indeed, many South Koreans feel sympathy for Ukraine, remembering the tragedy of the Korean War. But the war in Ukraine has underlined that peace cannot be achieved only with words and good intentions in the harsh reality of international politics. As the war in Ukraine shakes up the existing world order, countries such as Germany, Japan, and Taiwan, realize that they cannot protect their territories and populations solely with economic power. This realisation will accelerate the movement to solidify alliances and exacerbate arms racing in many parts of the world, including the Korean Peninsula.

Regarding South Korea’s security policy, Yoon Seok-yeol pledged to “strengthen the three-axis system” from the presidential election phase: to secure a kill chain; to strengthen the Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD); and to strengthen the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) in the event of a pre-emptive attack by North Korea, which some argue have become more likely due to the Ukraine conflict. The three-axis system refers to the South Korean military response system built in preparation for North Korean nuclear and missile attacks. Some critics said that such a claim would inevitably aggravate inter-Korean relations by provoking the North Korean military, potentially leading to a misunderstanding that could escalate into hostilities. Others are skeptical about whether South Korea’s current preparedness will have sufficient deterrence against North Korea. Since Yoon Seok-yeol’s victory in the presidential election, it now seems likely that South Korea’s defense policy will change.

Meanwhile, Yoon’s foreign policy priority is to further solidify the alliance with the United States as a comprehensive strategic alliance to leap forward as a “global pivotal state.” This is not limited to the military alliance. One month before the presidential election, Yoon announced his vision of making South Korea a global pivotal state with the aspiration that South Korea should “step up” in international affairs.[ii] The new administration intends to find a more proactive role for South Korea by breaking away from the conventional policy that has been regarded as reactive to pressure from the surrounding four major powers, the United States, Japan, China and Russia. Yoon will face many challenges on his domestic policy, but many South Koreans will probably agree with his vision on their country’s position and role on the global stage.

Although Koreans can agree on the goal, there are inevitably different opinions on how to get there. Yoon Seok-yeol’s strategic goal is not fundamentally different from the Moon Jae-in administration’s New Northern and New Southern policies, which Moon considered important for his vision of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. There are commonalities between the outgoing and incoming administrations; both want to make South Korea a global network hub by strategically leveraging its position as a middle power and beyond. However, the ideological aspect is much more emphasized in Yoon Seok-yeol’s concept of a global pivotal state. In his article for Foreign Affairs, he wrote that “South Korea should actively promote a free, open, and inclusive order in the Indo-Pacific”, aligning himself with official US policy. He also emphasized the strategic importance of Japan, as a partner with shared values, while asking for a respectful and fair relationship with China and urging North Korea’s denuclearization. It is still unclear how much public sentiment will follow.

In the uncertain international environment brought about by the war in Ukraine, it will be difficult for the Yoon government to strike an optimal balance between competing and conflicting interests and values. If South Korea moves too quickly to align with the United States, it will face backlash from China, Russia, and North Korea. China is still its largest trading partner, Russia is an important oil and gas supplier, and North Korea is an unpredictable and immediate threat. When backlash eventually hits the trade-dependent Korean economy, undermines the country’s energy security, or destabilizes its society, public opinion of the new Yoon government – already at an historical low – might worsen even further. The new Yoon government, therefore, should stress that South Korea’s foreign and security policies are not aggressive and warlike, but aimed at consolidating national defense and regional peace, while pursuing a proactive and constructive role through broadening its partnerships with like-minded countries.


[ii] ”

About the Author

Eunjung Lim is an Associate Professor of the Division of International Studies at Kongju National University (KNU). She also serves as Vice President for International Affairs, Dean of Institute of Institute of Korean Education and Culture, and Dean of Institute of International Language Education at the same university. Her areas of specialization include international cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, comparative and global governance, and energy, nuclear, and climate change policies of East Asian countries. She served as a board member of Korea Institute of Nuclear Nonproliferation and Control (KINAC), and currently serves as a board member of the Korean Association of International Studies and a member of Policy Advisory Committee for Ministry of Unification. 

Before joining the KNU faculty, Dr. Lim worked as an Assistant Professor at College of International Studies, Ritsumeikan University, in Kyoto, Japan. She also taught at several universities in the United States and Korea, including Johns Hopkins University, Yonsei University, and Korea University. She has been a researcher and a visiting fellow at academic institutes including the Center for Contemporary Korean Studies at Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies at the University of Tokyo, the Institute of Japanese Studies at Seoul National University, the Institute of Japan Studies at Kookmin University, and Institute of Energy Economics, Japan. She earned a B.A. from the University of Tokyo, an M.I.A. from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members.

Image: iStock, ValleraTo (remixed by the APLN)