For decades now, South Korea has enmeshed itself in economic and diplomatic ties around the world. Under the liberal world order, that was the game and Seoul played it well. The treaty alliance with the United States is a foundation of South Korean security, but it has not been taken as a determinant of who the East Asian nation’s friends and partners would be.

This view has been seen in South Korea’s response to Russian military aggression in Ukraine. Unlike in Europe and in North America, in South Korea Russia’s war in Ukraine is not treated by all as a threat to global democracy.

An interest in maintaining trade relations with Russia has been one basis for this view. Another argument is that this war is not Korea’s: Getting involved can feel like being pushed around by Americans and ceding yet more control over foreign relations.

Seoul has sent non-lethal equipment and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine but has so far not broken its policy against supplying weapons to an active military confrontation. On Thursday, South Korea said it would reconsider providing weapons.


In this view, Mr Putin’s visit reflects a missed opportunity, for South Korea, for North Korea, and for the wider region. If only Washington and Seoul had worked a bit harder to foster dialogue with Pyongyang, then perhaps the overture from Moscow would not have been the international opening for Mr Kim.

In Seoul, there is disappointment at the Russian visit to Pyongyang even if the diagnoses differ. Some lay blame at the feet of the North Korean leadership and its partners. Others see the causes as more complex, with American and South Korean leaders also called out for taking antagonising postures that foster a charged, ideological and Cold War-like tension.

But indignation is not the overwhelming reaction in South Korea. The views are subtler and call for caution in deciding Seoul’s next moves.

For better or worse, South Koreans are not on a crusade.

Erik Mobrand is Professor of Korean Studies at the Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul National University. Hyejin Kim is Senior Lecturer of political science at the National University of Singapore.


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