Will South Korea Export Its Military Might to Ukraine?

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol signaled a possible shift in his country’s stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine, opening the door to potentially providing direct military support to Kyiv as Seoul looks to take a larger role in global security, ahead of a major summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington this week.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol signaled a possible shift in his country’s stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine, opening the door to potentially providing direct military support to Kyiv as Seoul looks to take a larger role in global security, ahead of a major summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington this week.

Yoon said in an interview with Reuters ahead of the meeting that South Korea would consider sending aid to Ukraine beyond only “humanitarian or financial support” if Russian forces orchestrated more massacres or large-scale attacks on civilians in Ukraine—comments that reflect Seoul’s efforts to take a more proactive role in U.S.-aligned global alliances as it faces down growing threats from neighboring North Korea and China.

The possible shift would be welcomed with open arms in Washington, where Biden administration officials are urging allies to cobble together more military supplies for Ukraine as NATO’s own stockpiles dwindle. But it could also come with a cost, putting South Korea in both Beijing’s and Moscow’s crosshairs as it deepens relations with the United States and Japan, giving the nascent Yoon administration a sensitive diplomatic challenge. In short, Washington and its NATO allies want South Korea’s massive military stockpiles opened to Ukraine. And Russia is signaling that it will do whatever it takes to stop that.

South Korea sits on one of the world’s largest stockpiles of artillery and artillery shells as it stares down the threat from North Korea. It also produces high-end K2 battle tanks and self-propelled K9 howitzer artillery systems that have attracted Eastern European countries looking to bulk up their militaries to keep supplies flowing to Ukraine and deter Russia.

“Obviously, [South Korea] is a very significant producer of military equipment,” said one senior Biden administration official. “I think that we can find ways in which—through backfilling, through supplying others, as well as possibly through providing defensive assistance— … they can play an important role in what is happening.”

This month, Seoul agreed to lend 500,000 rounds of 155 mm artillery shells to the United States, a move that in turn gives Washington more breathing room to send more artillery to Ukraine.

Some experts say Yoon’s comments don’t indicate any sudden major lurch in South Korean policy but set the stage for sending military aid if Russia dramatically escalates the conflict. “I think Yoon is setting a red line that, if crossed, it would be such a game-changer that it would be unconscionable for South Korea to not get more involved. In other words, I don’t think it’s as big of a shift as it appears,” said Frank Aum, an expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace and former official in the U.S. Defense Department.

Yet Yoon even floating the idea of sending direct military aid to Ukraine, with qualifiers and all, sparked sharp diplomatic backlash and veiled threats from Russia that it could supply North Korea with advanced military technology in retaliation, underscoring the geopolitical squeeze his government faces. Russia has already reportedly purchased millions of artillery shells and rockets from North Korea as it faces its own supply crunch.

“I wonder what the inhabitants of [South Korea] will say when they see the latest designs of Russian weapons in the hands of their closest neighbors—our partners from the DPRK [North Korea]?” Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president and close ally to current Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in a post on Telegram.

On the other side, NATO countries on the alliance’s vulnerable eastern flank, including Poland, are openly urging Biden to directly pressure Yoon to start shipping arms to Ukraine. Ukraine is burning through Western military ammunition and stockpiles at an alarmingly high rate, leaving top Western officials doubting whether they can sustain the current level of support for a full second year of war.

Yoon also faces domestic political pressure at home over the question of arming Ukraine. Lee Jae-myung, the leader of South Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party, held a press conference to sharply criticize Yoon over suggesting South Korea could open the door to arming Ukraine, arguing that such a move would push Moscow to cooperate more closely militarily with North Korea.

Yoon’s visit to the White House coincides with the 70th anniversary of the U.S.-South Korean alliance and the armistice that paused the Korean War. Yoon will be the first South Korean president to visit the White House in over a decade, and it will be the sixth meeting in total between Yoon and Biden following previous meetings in Seoul, Madrid, London, New York, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The tempo of meetings reflects how important the Biden administration views the U.S. alliance with South Korea, particularly as related to its efforts to counter China on the world stage and the growing threat of North Korea’s nuclear program.

South Korea has sought to strengthen its diplomatic channels with Europe, with Yoon becoming the first-ever South Korean leader to attend a NATO summit, held in Madrid last June. It has also sought to position itself as a major arms exporter around the world, with a particular focus on markets in Europe, in line with Yoon’s strategy to beef up Seoul’s own military effectiveness and boost the country’s economy. South Korean arms exports rose 140 percent in 2022, including a major arms deal with Poland worth nearly $6 billion, and a possible new arms deal with Romania is in the works for this year, including K9 howitzers and ammunition.

A tranche of classified U.S. documents leaked on the web last month showed that Yoon’s government wrestled with the prospect of supplying the United States with artillery shells, lest they end up in Ukraine and trigger diplomatic blowback on Seoul. According to the documents, South Korean officials considered selling 330,000 rounds of 155 mm artillery shells to Poland as a workaround to label Poland the end user of the shells—even if the sales were aimed at supporting Ukraine indirectly.

South Korea’s growing role in Europe’s defense markets, and massive stockpile of ammunition, is central to why Ukraine looms so large on the agenda for Biden and Yoon’s meeting even with other major concerns, such as China and North Korea, on the table. “The U.S. recognizes that South Korea is one of the top defense exporters in the world,” said Aum, the former Pentagon official.

U.S. officials haven’t said whether Biden would explicitly ask Yoon to send weapons directly to Ukraine but stressed that the White House understands the pressure South Korea is under. “I think that we understand their concerns,” the senior administration official said. “I think they also understand how critical the situation in Ukraine is.”

Still, the official added, “there’s probably no country in the world that has a better sense of what it means to have an effective global response when one country is brutally invaded by a neighbor than [South Korea].”

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