SEOUL - Concerns are rising over the possible ramifications of the deepening Crimean crisis on South Korea's diplomacy and security as the standoff, if not properly tamped down, could foment Cold War-like tensions globally.
Experts say that the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War could put Seoul in a difficult diplomatic position, particularly when it seeks to strengthen its strategic ties with Moscow and traditional alliance with Washington.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree recognising Ukraine's Crimea province as an independent state on Monday, a day after the breakaway region voted overwhelmingly to leave Ukraine and join Russia.
The Kremlin's moves, which the West says violate international law and norms, came amid threats of "far-reaching" economic sanctions by the US and the EU.
For Seoul, one major concern is that it could be forced to join anti-Moscow sanctions, which would seriously hurt bilateral relations. Seoul's moves in favour of the West could derail a set of joint projects including Seoul's Eurasia Initiative, which aims to connect energy and logistics infrastructure across the continent.
"Seoul could be driven into a strategic dilemma. Joining any US-led sanctions against Russia would damage its ties with Russia, while it can't take either side in the conflict as doing so would undermine its interests," said Lee Sang-hyun, a senior research fellow at the think tank Sejong Institute.
"For now, Seoul can only hold on to its basic position that the standoff should be settled through the international community's universal conflict resolution practices and, of course, through peaceful procedures."
Seoul has sought to deepen ties with Moscow as it believes Russia has increasing strategic value in terms of economics, cooperation on North Korea's denuclearization and regional security.
The two-way trade volume between South Korea and Russia exceeded US$20 billion (S$25.3 billion) in 2011 for the first time and reached $22.5 billion in 2012. Last November, the two former Cold War adversaries signed a visa-waiver programme in a symbolic move to further bolster their strategic ties.
"Should the conflict between the US and Russia further escalate, this would have negative impacts on the world economy, politics and security. This would also impact Seoul, a key ally of the US," said Kim Heung-kyu, diplomacy professor at Ajou University.
"How Seoul deals with this case is very important and will affect future cooperation with Russia considering that Russia has emerged as a crucial partner in various aspects ― a reason why Seoul needs to look at the case from a long-term, strategic perspective."