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On Both Sides of Korean Peninsula, Eyes on Washington’s Response to Russia

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SEOUL — Both North and South Korea are likely to be closely watching the American response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though for different reasons, analysts say.

North Korea carried out a flurry of missile tests in January, but none this month — possibly out of deference to its neighbor and ally China, which was hosting the Winter Olympics. With the Games now over and the Biden administration’s attention fixed on Ukraine, North Korea might decide it’s time to resume weapons tests, to gain more diplomatic leverage with Washington.

“The crisis in Ukraine gives North Korea more room for options, whether it’s a long-range missile test or even a nuclear test,” said Cheon Seong-whun, a former head of the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government-funded research institute in Seoul.

In South Korea, many people will see Washington’s response to Russia’s invasion as a test of its dependability as a military ally, said Lee Byong-chul, a professor of political science at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul.

He said a failure of American leadership could even increase public support for the idea of South Korea having its own nuclear weapons — an idea that the South’s government opposes, but which has gained popularity as the North has kept building its arsenal and China has become more assertive in the region.

“South Koreans saw the United States already looking something like a toothless tiger when it withdrew chaotically from Afghanistan,” Professor Lee said. “If it proves spineless in Ukraine, they will talk more about arming their country with nuclear weapons, because they wonder whether Ukraine would have suffered the humiliation it is suffering now had it not have given up its nuclear weapons.”

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine gave up the Soviet nuclear weapons on its soil in exchange for security guarantees.

South Korean online chat rooms were abuzz with people discussing the Ukraine invasion’s implications for the divided Korean Peninsula. A weak American response would harden North Korea’s determination not to give up its nuclear arsenal, some people said.

The South Korean government has condemned the invasion and pledged to join international sanctions against Russia. As of Saturday, the North Korean government had not issued a statement about the invasion.

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