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[Editorial] Shaky alliance

Korea hesitates in imposing sanctions as US, allies close ranks against Russia

The United States recently announced export controls on Russia as part of economic sanctions for its invasion of Ukraine.

The restrictions require even foreign-made items using US technology and software to get an approval from the US government before being shipped to Russia.

However, the US Commerce Department has exempted 32 countries from the new rules because they have implemented or are planning on implementing similar restrictive export control measures on Russia. They are 27 European countries and Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom. South Korea is not among them.

Under the rules, South Korean companies will have to go through a complex procedure of getting prior US approval on their exports to Russia.

This is a result of the South Korean administration’s passive moves on the matter of imposing sanctions against Russia.

Before Russia invades Ukraine, the US and allies agreed to impose sanctions if the invasion becomes a reality.

However, Seoul took a passive position that it could not but join sanctions if the US and Europe impose them. Even as Washington vowed to sanction Russian gas pipeline projects, the prime minister said last week publicly that South Korea should keep on pushing a project to lay a gas pipeline linking Russia to South Korea via North Korea. Only after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the government announced it would join sanctions. It looked obviously reluctant.

US President Joe Biden hosted a conference call on Monday with US allies and partners about their unified response to Russia’s war on Ukraine. The White House said the allies and partners were Canada, the EU, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, NATO, Poland, Romania and the UK. South Korea was not among them.

A senior Biden administration official said on Monday that the US is taking sanctions of the Russian central bank with Germany, France, the UK, Italy, Japan, Canada, the European Union, and others. There was no mention of South Korea.

Korea seems to be routinely left out. The US recently struck a deal with Japan to remove tariffs on Japanese steel imports, but it has not yet fixed a date for negotiations with South Korea.

South Korea has become a hard-to-trust ally of the US, even as it maintains the US alliance for about seven decades.

There is a reason. South Korea hesitated to fall into step while other countries closed ranks against Russia. Naturally, the US, allies and partners are unsatisfied.

Only after Russia invaded Ukraine, Cheong Wa Dae expressed willingness to join sanctions, but excluded the possibility of taking its own measures.

After the news came out that South Korea was not among 32 countries exempted from US export controls on Russia, the government belatedly decided to ban shipments of strategic items to Russia and notified the US of the decision.

Afterwards it also decided to join global efforts to cut off a number of Russian banks from the international payment system. The Moon administration rushed to pick up the pieces after the event.

Probably it worried about Russia’s possible retaliation. The same might be true of other countries. However, they took a risk to show the solidarity of the international community.

Alliance is a promise among allies to defend one another at the risk of sacrifice. It can stand only when allies trust one another.

The Korea-US alliance has shaken to the point that Korea was left out of the pack of 32 countries exempted from the US export controls on Russia.

Washington has emphasized coordinated action by allies and partners. If South Korea steps back or hesitates when its ally demands a united action, it would be told that it is shameless when it asks for help.

By Korea Herald (
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