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South Korea to Join Russia Sanctions, But Won’t Lodge Its Own

People watch a TV report on the crisis in Ukraine during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station, in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 24, 2022.

South Korean officials reiterated Friday that they will implement U.S. and European sanctions on Russian exports but that Seoul will not impose its own. The sanctions were imposed this week in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

"As a responsible member of the international community, the Korean government will support and join [its] efforts, including economic sanctions, to curb [Russia's] armed invasion and resolve the situation peacefully,” the foreign affairs ministry said Friday in a Twitter post. That echoed remarks made a day earlier by President Moon Jae-in, who argued for a resolution through dialogue and negotiation, not war.

Semiconductors, electronics, and automobiles, South Korea's top exports to Russia, could all be affected by the latest export controls announced by the U.S. Commerce Department. They will require companies that use U.S.-origin technology in products, such as semiconductors, computers and aircraft parts, to receive Washington's approval before sending them to Russia.

"Between our actions and those of our allies and partners, we estimate that we will cut off more than half of Russia's high-tech imports," U.S. President Joe Biden said Thursday in announcing the new curbs.

Although a few Asia-Pacific states, including Japan and Australia, have announced their own sanctions against Russia, South Korea said it has no plans to do the same, for now.

"What we're saying is that we will naturally abide by the sanctions as they are issued by the U.S. and European nations," presidential spokesperson Park Soo-hyun said in a radio interview on Friday.

"We also have to keep in mind that our trade relations with Russia are growing," he said.

On Wednesday, a presidential official who spoke on condition of anonymity told reporters multiple options were on the table, and that Seoul's position could be adjusted depending on the duration of the crisis, its direction and other countries’ responses.

Seoul’s position stands in contrast to that of Japan, which extended its sanctions Friday to include semiconductors and other high-tech goods, as well as a freeze on Russian banks’ assets. Previously, it had banned new travel permits for individuals from the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, after Russian President Vladimir Putin moved to recognize those Ukrainian territories earlier this week.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida Friday characterized Russia's invasion as a "unilateral attempt to change the status quo ... with ramifications for the international order, not just in Europe but Asia and beyond."

South Korea's response so far has largely been inward-looking -- setting up a government task force with affected businesses as well as around-the-clock monitoring of global risks, such as the price of oil and natural gas.

Moon urged the full use of current nuclear power plants at an energy supply chain inspection meeting on Friday, marking an apparent reversal from his administration's hallmark nuclear phase-out policy. The global flow of LNG is expected to be disrupted by the crisis unfolding in Ukraine.

'Strategic Ambiguity' with a friendly disposition

Russia is South Korea's 10th-largest trading partner, accounting for 1.6% of South Korea's exports and 2.8% of its imports, according to the Korea International Trade Association's 2021 data.

The scale may pale in comparison to that of China and the United States, Seoul's two top trading partners, but the Russia relationship holds growth potential and plenty of amicable history, according to international relations professor Ahn Se Hyun at the University of Seoul.

"Russia was instrumental in South Korea's joining of the United Nations in 1991," Ahn told VOA. "And unlike the nature of Russia's relationship with Japan since the Cold War, which is akin to that of enemies, South Korea's relationship with Russia has been one of strategic cooperation."

Tokyo and Moscow have yet to agree to a post-World War II peace treaty, divided by an ongoing territorial dispute over a chain of islands between them.

For South Korea, Russia holds significance not only in the past, but also for the future.

"Since our trade reliance on China is so high, Russia offers an alternative to diversify; it can also serve as a springboard into the European market," Ahn said. Russia is also one of few countries that support the reunification of the two Koreas, he said.

Implications for the Korean peninsula

South Korea’s top two presidential candidates, who are locked in a close race with 12 days until the vote, condemned Russia Thursday.

While the liberal frontrunner, former provincial Governor Lee Jae-myung, said the Ukraine situation shows the importance of preserving peace, the leading conservative candidate, former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, went a step further.

In a statement, Yoon noted the situation facing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has made largely unsuccessful appeals for international help.

"As a country that is surrounded by global powers, we need to draw a lesson for ourselves,” Yoon said, underscoring Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in 1994 in exchange for security assurances from the U.S., U.K. and Russia, per the Budapest Memorandum.

"Memoranda between nations can become mere scraps of paper under the weight of great-power politics," said Yoon, who has campaigned on a tougher posture against nuclear-armed North Korea.