Seoul-Moscow Relations on a Dangerous Slippery Slope

There has been a significant downturn in the bilateral relations between South Korea and Russia over the past two years. This began with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and South Korea’s participation in subsequent U.S.-led sanctions against Russia, for which Russia designated South Korea as an “unfriendly” state. Tensions also persisted over the North Korean issues as Russia continued to veto all new UN Security Council Resolutions against North Korea, despite the latter’s continuous military provocations in 2022 and 2023.

The deteriorating Seoul-Moscow relations took a turn for the worse when a new alignment emerged on both sides. In July 2023, South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol made a surprise visit to Ukraine and announced South Korea’s peace initiative in support of Ukraine, including military, humanitarian, and economic reconstruction aid. Two months later, Russian president Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held a summit and agreed to enhance their countries’ military cooperation. Most recently, tensions culminated in a diplomatic row between foreign ministries in Seoul and Moscow over President Yoon’s remarks on North Korea.

A confluence of these adverse developments marks a significant setback in the bilateral ties between Seoul and Moscow, which have grown largely through active economic cooperation since South Korea and the Soviet Union normalized a diplomatic relationship in 1990. In 2021, Russia was South Korea’s tenth-largest export partner, with the latter’s goods exports to the former totaling $9.97 billion, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Russia is also South Korea’s important energy supplier, accounting for less than 10 percent of its total energy imports before the outbreak of the Ukraine war. For Russia, its goods exports to South Korea were over $17 billion in 2021, making South Korea its fifth-largest export destination. Both South Korea and Russia have also seen each other largely in geoeconomic and geostrategic terms. While Russia traditionally saw South Korea as a main gateway to the Pacific Ocean, South Korea similarly viewed Russia as an important partner in regional connectivity projects, such as logistics and energy networks, and for transnational cooperation in the Eurasian continent.

However, the Ukraine war and its spillover to the Korean peninsula are taking a hard toll on the Seoul-Moscow relationship, and both sides are firmly locked in their core interests over North Korea and Ukraine and have little wiggle room to narrow down their differences. Russia needs North Korea’s ammunition and missiles to win the war in Ukraine. In return, Russia provides a wide range of support and assistance to North Korea, including sophisticated military technology. But Russia’s actions not only pose a direct security threat to South Korea, but also significantly undermine existing sanctions against North Korea. Russia also criticized U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK)-Japan military exercises as a war preparation with North Korea, although South Korea views the joint military exercise with the United States as critical for allied military readiness, and as a demonstration of U.S. extended deterrence commitment to its security. On Ukraine, Russia repeatedly threatened South Korea not to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine, warning that it would “negatively affect” the security situation in the Korean peninsula. The Yoon government has resisted European calls for South Korea’s direct military support to Ukraine, but it views Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as illegal under international law and maintains its sanctions against Russia. Recently, the Russian ambassador to South Korea demanded that South Korea lift the sanction as a “minimum requirement” before Moscow removes South Korea from its “unfriendly nations” list. But such demand would be very difficult for South Korea to meet unless Russia also takes reciprocal actions on North Korea. Ultimately, neither side is likely to budge as long as the Ukraine war continues.

While Seoul and Moscow remain bogged down in the current deadlock, several factors could push the ROK-Russia relations off the cliff. One is if Russia does not condemn or is seen to support North Korea in the event of the latter’s lethal provocation against South Korea, in contrast to the case of the shelling of Yeonpyeongdo Island in 2010. The second is Russia’s continued military technology assistance to North Korea, which could be demonstrated in the latter’s weapons testing. Despite their strong denial of a military deal, there is strong skepticism about Russia’s help behind North Korea’s successful satellite launch last year. The third is Russia’s effort to block the UN Security Council resolution against North Korea in the event of North Korea’s seventh nuclear test, a possibility repeatedly raised by the Russian Ambassador to North Korea recently. The fourth is Russia’s help to North Korea to evade international sanctions and undermine the non-proliferation regime. The recent media report that Russia has released North Korea’s frozen assets in Russian financial banks, if true, will push the bilateral relations in a bad direction. Finally, Putin’s scheduled visit to North Korea and further tightening of Moscow-Pyongyang ties could encourage North Korea’s military adventurism on the peninsula and harden the rift between Seoul and Moscow. For Russia, it may have an incentive to incite North Korea’s provocations to distract U.S. attention away from Ukraine. However, such an idea would be a mistake and could only backfire with heightened tension on the peninsula and a possible policy change in Seoul.

That said, Russian deputy foreign minister Andrey Rudenko’s recent visit to Seoul and meetings with South Korean officials in early February to resume dialogue was a positive step. This progress should be followed by continuous dialogue between South Korea and Russia to establish de-escalatory measures and put guardrails on their bilateral relations. Without them, North Korea’s military provocation will likely put the current ROK-Russia bilateral relationship on a slippery slope that would end at rock bottom.

Ellen Kim is deputy director and senior fellow of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Ellen Kim
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Korea Chair