Seoul’s decision to attend Putin inauguration leaves door open for diplomatic relations

Washington —  In a move that contrasts with the United States, South Korea had its ambassador in Moscow attend Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration, seemingly leaving its options open for maintaining diplomatic relations with Russia amid Moscow’s deepening ties with Pyongyang.

Seoul said it based its decision for Ambassador Lee Do-hoon to attend Putin’s inauguration “after considering all circumstances surrounding South Korean-Russian bilateral relations.” 

A South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson made the remark to VOA’s Korean Service on Friday.

The U.S. and most European Union countries boycotted Putin’s inauguration held May 7 at the Grand Kremlin Palace.

He was reelected in March for his fifth term in office as Russia’s war in Ukraine raged on for more than two years since its invasion in 2022. Moscow has turned to Pyongyang to replenish its stockpile of arms to fight Ukraine.

“The U.S. directed our embassy not to attend the inauguration in protest of Russia’s war against Ukraine,” a State Department spokesperson said Thursday in an email sent to VOA’s Korean Service.

Japan also did not send a representative to the ceremony. Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Kobayashi Maki said during a news briefing held in Tokyo the day after the inauguration that its decision was “based upon comprehensive consideration of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.”

VOA contacted the Russian Embassy in Seoul for comment on Lee’s attendance. Its spokesperson, Mira Dzhamalidinova, emailed that it has “no comments for VOA.”


Robert Rapson, who served as charge d’affaires and deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul from 2018 to 2021, said, “Ambassador Lee’s attendance at Putin’s inauguration was a small but symbolically significant step by Seoul to signal to Moscow its interest in improving, or at least more effectively managing, deteriorating bilateral relations.”

He continued, “It put [South] Korea clearly out of a public messaging step with the U.S. and its like-minded partners,” and demonstrated “adjustments to its ‘signature value-based’ foreign policy.”

Relations between South Korea and Russia have declined as military ties between Moscow and Pyongyang deepened since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited Russia in September.

In April, South Korea sanctioned two Russian vessels involved in delivering military supplies from North Korea to Russia. In response, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova called Seoul’s move “an unfriendly step” that “will affect South Korea-Russia relations in a negative way.”  [[ ]] 


“Washington was likely displeased with South Korea’s decision to send a representative to Putin’s inauguration,” said Dan DePetris, a fellow at Defense Priorities, a Washington-based think tank.

“This is a subtle, low-cost way for the Yoon government [of South Korea] to signal to Moscow that differences over Ukraine and North Korea notwithstanding, it’s not going to mimic the U.S. policy of diplomatic isolation” toward Russia, he continued.

DePetris added that Seoul likely allowed its representative to attend Putin’s inauguration “precisely because North Korea-Russia bilateral ties have strengthened over the last two years” and wants to “keep all options on the table.”

Pyongyang-Moscow ties have expanded to include several visits to Russia by North Korean delegations recently. On Tuesday, North Korea sent a science and technology delegation to Russia to attend a meeting on trade, economy and science to be held in Moscow, according to North Korea’s state-run KCNA.

Also, passenger train services between the two countries resumed since they were suspended after the COVID-19 pandemic, according to South Korean news agency Yonhap, citing Oleg Kozhemyako, the governor of Russia’s northeastern region of Primorsky Krai, bordering North Korea.

Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center’s Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy Project, said, “Moscow’s new partnership with North Korea may have been a factor” that prompted Seoul to make its representation at Putin’s inauguration.

He continued, however, “I doubt Seoul has illusions about its ability to restrain Russia’s ties with Pyongyang” but is “perhaps focused on maintaining economic ties” with Moscow.

South Korea’s exports to Russia totaled $6.33 billion in 2022, while its imports from Russia amounted to $12.8 billion in the same year, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, an online platform for data collection and distribution. South Korea’s investment in Russia reached $4.16 billion in the same year, according to the South Korean Foreign Ministry.  

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