Nikolai I. Pereslavtsev
Admiral Nevelskoy Maritime State University, Vladivostok
Abstract:The article has been written in November, 2022. The author considers the essence and main points of the policy on military issues in the Republic of Korea implemented by current administration of president Yoon Suk-yeol. The components of this policy are considered in detail in relation to countries that actively influence the situation in Northeast Asia: Russia, China, the USA, Japan, and North Korea. Also there have been specially highlighted the factors of international situation in 2022 making an influence on the formation of South Korean policy on military issues: aggravation of situation in Europe as well as efforts of some countries aimed at the revival of regional blocking with allies to the detriment of other states in the Asia-Pacific.
Keywords: policy on military issues; South Korea; South Korean weapons; trade and economic partnership; nuclear arms; AUKUS and QUAD; presidential administration
Not being a professional politician (for all his life he was lawyer, prosecutor, then Attorney-General), nevertheless, Yoon Suk-yeol implements the policy of his Administration on military issues in the traditional Korean way of cautious spirit of prudence and in this does not differ from his conservative predecessors. In principle, he has quite competent advisers and inner circle, to whose opinion he listens. For example, the posts of the Minister of Defense and the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee are held by army generals (retired and on the service): Lee Jong-sup and Kim Seung-geum. In view of the traditionally high level of officers’ training in the Republic of Korea we can be sure that these are fully trained professionals.
With Russia and China – pragmatic partnership relations based on trade and economic interaction. At the same time, the intention of the Republic of Korea to preserve ties with the “world community” and traditional allies is declared, and because of this, various demonstrative restrictive and even forceful measures can be periodically proclaimed. However, in the scope and the depth of their application, the leadership prefer to base on their own tactical or strategic interests, reducing these steps to formal level or completely putting the brakes on them and refusing to implement.
Although in our point of view South Korea has fallen into the category of “unfriendly” countries, votes everywhere in line with American policy, etc., officially condemned the Russian Special Military Operation, in fact, it behaves in discreet manner towards the Russian Federation. Yoon Suk-yeol himself, who at first spoke more sharply about Russia, became noticeably more reserved after taking office.
Unlike the Japanese, South Korea did not expel defiantly any of the Russians, did not tighten the visa regime, and did not cut contacts at the level of “civil society”. The government adopted at first some restrictive measures on the sale of “strategic items”. However, back in March-April, Seoul obtained from the United States an exception of Korean household appliances, electronics and cars (including spare parts) from export sanctions on Russia.
According to American estimates, of the 122 largest South Korean companies, 88 avoid to condemn Russia (Samsung, Hyundai Motor, LG, POSCO)  for Special Military Operation in Ukraine. The Republic of Korea continues to import Russian seafood, corn and natural resources, including coal (July-August 2022 – 656 million dollars, though its share is decreasing), natural gas and oil . The cargo and passenger ferry operates between Vladivostok and Korean ports [1, 15]. There have not been talks yet about direct visits of officials to each other, but the foreign ministers of Russia and Korea met on the sidelines of various international forums .
In the summer and early autumn, reports about the entry of South Korean arms manufacturers into the European market attracted attention. The emphasis here is on the countries that cannot purchase expensive American-made weapon samples.
For example, Poland chose 48 South Korean FA-50 fighters, which are cheaper than the American F-35, 300 MLRS (multiple launch rocket system) K-239 “Choonmoo” (similar to the American MLRS HIMARS) , as well as 980 K-2 tanks instead of the American US-M1. In addition, Poland bought 672 South Korean K-9 self-propelled howitzers . The USA has not yet presented its alternative in this segment of the market .
Let us also not forget that back in the 2000s, the Russian Federation paid part of its debt to South Korea with T-80 tanks. These tanks are not mentioned directly in the context Korean-Polish negotiations, but we have no guarantees that they really do not appear within the framework of two countries agreements.
If you think sensibly, distracting from politics, then Seoul, in the case of arms contracts with Poland, can not be particularly blamed for purely business transaction. The buyer expressed a desire to purchase, the seller found something to sell.
It should be emphasized that from the very beginning, the South Koreans provided Ukraine only with the so-called “humanitarian military assistance”: helmets, blankets, medicines (up to 100 million dollars) and in every possible way deny (beginning from President) that they intend to supply lethal systems. At the Valdai Forum in September the Russian President warned against further steps in this direction, citing, among other things, a good argument: how the Republic of Korea would have reacted if Russia had resumed military cooperation with North Korea. In response to this, Yoon Suk-yeol again renounced his intentions to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine. In addition, he said: “In any case, this is a matter of our sovereignty and we try to maintain peaceful and good relations with all countries, including Russia” .
Relations with China are twofold. On the one hand, Korea, being an export-oriented economy, sends up to 30% of its commodity exports to China. For comparison, about 10% goes to Europe. As major trade and economic partners, Seoul and Beijing are forced to maintain normal ties and in August jointly celebrated the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations.
On the other hand, the Korean leadership is not enthusiastic about what it calls Chinese attempts to control and dominate the region. From our point of view, this is rather not confrontation, but a clear desire of Seoul to “move” a large neighbor in order to acquire more advantageous geopolitical positions in their favor. Even the notorious American installations of the THAAD missile defense system can be replaced in the future, as they say in Korea, with domestic developments for the same purpose. That is, it is not even a matter of who manufactured or brought missile defense systems to Korea. The problem generated by their deployment on the Peninsula will remain in any case, and the reasons for this problem are deeper than a single situational step by one of the regional “actors”. Most likely, these reasons come from the difference in the geopolitical aspirations of South Korea and China, based on mental and historical peculiarities of both nations. (End of introductory fragment)