21.06.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

On Lee Jun-seok’s Visit to Ukraine.


Every South Korean president has sent special envoys to the US, China, Japan and Russia at the beginning of his rule. These were intended to familiarize the leadership with the course of the new president and to build bridges for further cooperation. Most of them have already been appointed, but the name of the envoy to Russia is not yet known. There are only rumors. According to some, it will be Song Young-gil, who is considered the most pro-Russian politician. Others say it will be the experienced diplomat Park Jong-soo.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party leader Lee Jun-seok has already made a trip to Ukraine. Although entering Ukraine without permission is forbidden, he travelled as part of a party delegation with a number of Conservative MPs, including such an interesting personality as Thae Yong-ho, a well-known North Korean defector.

Lee Jun-seok flew to Ukraine via Poland on the evening of June 3 and met with journalists the same morning after meeting Ukrainian Ambassador to Korea Dmytro Ponomarenko and said the delegation intended to study the situation on the ground and report its findings to the president.

On June 5, Lee Jun-seok met with representatives of local NGOs in the city of Lviv and discussed ways to support refugees fleeing the war, who, according to Lee, “are hoping for a lot of assistance from South Korean society … they are asking for medical supplies and food that can be stored for a long period of time.” Lee also met with representatives of the Korean diaspora.

On June 6, Lee Jun-seok and Co visited Kiev and discussed ways to cooperate in rebuilding the city. Oleksiy Kuleba, head of the Kiev regional administration, said that the delegation visited the Kiev region, paying attention to the site of a mass grave of civilians in Bucha and in the ruined quarters of Irpen. Lee refrained from assessing what he had seen but stressed that he would report his findings to President Yoon: “We are here to find out what we can do for Ukraine.”

It later emerged that Lee Jun-seok met with President Volodymyr Zelensky on June 6. The exact time and place of the meeting was not specified at the request of the local authorities, plans for cooperation, support measures and reconstruction of the country were discussed, and Lee Jun-seok again assured the Ukrainian side that he would convey everything discussed to President Yoon Suk-yeol. Lee, on the other hand, delivered a message of support, saying South Korea would continue to help Ukraine find peace. According to a YouTube video posted by MP Thae Yong-ho, who was present at the meeting, Zelensky said that he would like Yoon to come to Ukraine and that he had extended an invitation to the president.

On the same day, the delegation met with Oleksandr Kornienko, First Deputy Speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament, and other parliamentary officials. According to a press release, Lee and Kornienko discussed how South Korean tech companies can provide practical support for Ukraine’s reconstruction. Lee Jun-seok also visited a children’s hospital with his delegation and donated Samsung Tabs to hospitalized children.

On June 9, the delegation, led by Lee Jun-seok, returned home. “We have witnessed how the Russian invasion left a big scar on Ukraine in humanitarian terms and acts against humanity in cities, like Bucha and Irpin, destroyed in war,” Lee said at Incheon International Airport, but refrained from further description, reiterating that he would convey everything discussed during the visit to the government.  Neither he nor even Thae Yong-ho has made melodramatic descriptions of “the horror they saw,” and for the author this is symptomatic.

On June 10, President Yoon Suk-yeol met members of the delegation for lunch.  Lee described what he had witnessed and said that his impression was that any discussion of ending the war was still premature because of the domestic political situation. According to Lee, the Ukrainian leadership is deeply interested in cooperating with the Yoon administration.

But Yoon said:  “If a decision could be reached quickly on the domestic and overseas legal issues pertaining to the various support systems (for Ukraine) … and if you went as a special envoy, there would be more to do, but there still hasn’t been a decision”.

In the author’s view, Lee’s trip is worth putting in the overall context of a situation in which South Korea, on the one hand, is actively demonstrating solidarity with the international community on the Ukrainian issue, while, on the other hand, is lagging behind and not keen to pull ahead, despite the pressure reportedly being exerted on Seoul.

So far, the following can be noted. Much of the coverage of the Ukrainian crisis in the South Korean media is reprinted from the West. There is no news of its own about “Russian aggression.” And when Volodymyr Zelensky gave a video address to members of the People’s Assembly (parliament) of the ROK on April 11, the conservative media described with indignation the fact that half of the MPs did not come, and most of those who did were “on their phones,” not really showing participation. For the majority of the country’s population, the war in Ukraine is a conflict on the far periphery of their mental map.

All direct requests to supply arms to Ukraine, including those voiced during the meeting with Lee, run into a wall. South Korea is prepared to supply body armor and helmets, but not weapons, although Deputy Foreign Minister Dmytro Senyk, who was in Seoul on June 7-8, actively demanded arms supplies from Seoul.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry has allocated $3m to a World Food Program (WFP) Ukraine Relief Project. Some $2m will be allocated for food and cash assistance and logistical support in connection with the recent UN Ukraine Flash Appeal, and $1m will be directed to WFP assistance to Ukrainian refugees in Moldova. Earlier in March, Seoul donated $1.5m to the UN food agency, plus South Korea will provide Ukraine with an additional $1.2m in financial aid to help secure the operation of nuclear power plants in the country. The funds will be transferred to Kiev through the UN and will cover the costs of sending IAEA staff to Ukraine and procuring the necessary equipment and materials. To put it nicely, this is pennies even without taking into account what percentage of this money will not be stolen.

Then, attempts by South Korean citizens to go to Ukraine as volunteers are not welcomed and are suppressed wherever possible.  The notorious Lee Geun was handed over to the prosecutor’s office on June 15 for possible prosecution – at the very least, for violating passport laws.

Nevertheless, Seoul is under quite a lot of pressure, including the following plan: there is a “third country” that possesses weapons or ammunition of South Korean origin. It sends this ammunition to Ukraine and the South Koreans fill the gap. The most likely options for such “third countries” are Canada and Poland.  It is believed that the next round of pressure will come when Yoon Suk-yeol travels to the NATO summit in Madrid on June 29-30 and then in early July to Lausanne, where a conference is planned directly on the Ukrainian crisis.

It should also be remembered that this trip happened against the backdrop of certain tensions within the leading conservative party, where an internal squabble is now beginning between supporters of Lee Jun-seok and supporters of Yoon Suk-yeol, who are trying to create a new faction within the party. This is also claimed by Ahn Cheol-soo, who became an MP, and it can be seen that Lee went to Ukraine on his own initiative, not as Yoon Suk-yeol’s personal special envoy.  All the more so, the information that Lee gave Zelensky some secret letters from Yoon is refuted.

Moreover, while still on the trip, Lee had to fend off critics.  Thus, Member of Parliament and Deputy Speaker Jeon Jin-seok (considered one of the figures close to President Yoon) criticized Lee for undertaking the trip for his own political gain, despite opposition from government officials concerned with foreign affairs and national security. Another conservative MP and veteran politician, Lee In-Je, said Lee Jun-seok should have “thought and acted based on the national interest of Korea” rather than personal preferences. He called Lee’s trip a “train loaded with bombs that threaten the national interest.”

Meanwhile, calls for caution and non-involvement are being made precisely by Yoon’s followers. The above mentioned Jeon Jin-seok wrote on social media that “it’s hard to understand why we should get involved in a conflict that is thousands of kilometers away… We should not take sides. And in general we have to be very careful, if only for the reason that we need Russia’s help and support to ensure peace and nuclear disarmament on the Korean peninsula.”

This is followed by fears that in response to Seoul’s excessive meddling in the Ukraine conflict, Russia may return to military and defense cooperation with the DPRK. And this will hit the interests of the South much harder. Thus, the director of the Euro-Asian Strategy Institute, Park Pyung-hwan, wonders: “Russia may be an enemy to the US, but is Russia an enemy to Korea?” According to Park, it is difficult to answer this question in the affirmative. “But it raises fears that we are doing everything with our own hands to turn ourselves into Russia’s enemies.”

To summarize, however, it is unclear to what extent Lee’s trip was part of a government policy rather than a personal position amidst factional infighting. But one way or another, the South Korean leadership killed several birds with this visit. First, from a formal point of view, this was not a state-sponsored event. Second, sympathy and a desire to help were demonstrated. Third, nothing else was said or done, and Lee made no public promises. Fourth, despite the visit’s specific program designed to arouse emotions in the young politician, Lee refrained from anti-Russian rhetoric, otherwise both the South Korean and Ukrainian media would have reported it. Fifth, the Conservatives in power have succeeded in demonstrating that their political course coincides with that of the United States.

And to what extent Washington will eventually push Seoul for something more, and what the Russian response will be in this case, we will soon see.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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