South Korea is taking contrasting diplomatic approaches to address Russia and China as Pyongang and Moscow bolster military ties.
While condemning Russia for its potential arms deal with North Korea, Seoul is seeking to improve ties with Beijing in a move analysts view as an attempt to prevent the North Korea-Russia partnership from expanding into a trilateral bloc with China.
During his speech at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Wednesday (local time), President Yoon Suk Yeol issued a warning against military cooperation between Pyongyang and Moscow, saying any arms deal between the two countries would be a "direct provocation" against South Korea.
"If North Korea acquires the information and technology necessary to enhance its Weapons of Mass Distruction (WMD) capabilities in exchange for supporting Russia with conventional weapons, the deal will be a direct provocation threatening the peace and security of not only Ukraine but also the Republic of Korea," he said.
In his speech, Yoon used the term "Russia-North Korea" instead of "North Korea-Russia," drawing attention as the latter is more frequently used by the South Korean public. His choice of words apparently reflected his administration's increasing hostility toward North Korea, possibly perceiving the relationship with North Korea more distant than that with Russia.
Later in the day, Russia expressed deep regret over Yoon's speech and warned of the "negative consequences" on biltaeral relations if South Korea continues to follow the anti-Russian propoganda initiated by the U.S.
"We call upon the government of the Republic of Korea, with which Russia has a substantial experience of mutually beneficial communication and cooperation, to base its actions on a healthy and objective assessment of the current situation," the Russian Embassy in Seoul said in a statement.
South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Russian Ambassador to Seoul Andrey Kulik, Monday, to protest Russia's military ties with North Korea. It was the first time Seoul called in the Russian envoy since July 2019, when a Russian military aircraft invaded South Korea's airspace near the Dokdo islets.
The rare official diplomatic protest, however, was brushed off by Russia.
In a statement released on Tuesday, the Russian Embassy said the ongoing speculation about potential technological and military cooperation with North Korea is a "groundless" claim being disseminated by the South Korean and U.S. media.
"The real threat to the Korean Peninsula comes from the fierce and disproportionate military activity by South Korea and United States that aims to deter Pyongyang by force," the embassy added.
Seoul seeks to break ice with Beijing
Seoul's hardline stance toward Russia appears to contrast with its active engagement with China. In recent weeks, South Korea has been trying to thaw relations with China that have chilled considerably under the incumbent administration.
Earlier this week, the government announced that a delegation led by Prime Minister Han Duck-soo will attend the opening ceremony of the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, which kicks off this Saturday.
Announcing such plans, Han said his visit will send a positive signal to China and expressed hopes of meeting Chinese President Xi Jingping, either in the form of an one-on-one meeting or a brief engagement.
Considering that South Korea's delegations to previous Asian Games were led by the culture minister, Han's envisioned visit highlights Seoul's willingness to improve ties with Beijing, according to Kang Joon-young, a professor of Chinese Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
"China wants to improve relations with South Korea too," Kang said. "Han may be able to meet with Preimer Li Qiang, and I wouldn't rule out the possiblity of a brief meeting with Xi."
China's complex view on the deepening North Korea-Russia partnership can be a good opportunity for South Korea to restore diplomatic ties with its biggest trading partner, the professor said.
"Forging a Beijing-Moscow-Pyongyang military bloc is not something China wants right now. Beijing seems to be refraining from overtly highlighting trilateral cooperation, which makes room for South Korea to improve bilateral relations with China," he said.