Ukrainian forces fire mortars toward Russian encampments along the front line in Donetsk, Ukraine. (Reuters/Yonhap)
While the South Korean government is ostensibly holding to its stance of not providing Ukraine with lethal armaments for its ongoing war with Russia, an American newspaper claims that South Korea has provided Ukraine with more shells indirectly, via the US, than all the shells provided by Europe.
That gives more credence to the argument that Russian President Vladimir Putin was motivated to strengthen “strategic cooperation” with North Korea during a summit in September because of his anger over the South Korean government’s decision to seriously endanger Russia’s national security.
As part of a series of in-depth reports on the status of the war in Ukraine — which began almost two years ago, in late February 2022 — the Washington Post reported that South Korea has become “a larger supplier of artillery ammunition for Ukraine than all European nations combined.”
According to the Washington Post, the training, weapons and armaments that the Ukrainian military needed as the war dragged on emerged as a major challenge for the US and its Western allies.
When US national security adviser Jake Sullivan convened a meeting on Feb. 3 to discuss that, one of the main points on the agenda was the 155 mm shells the Ukrainian troops absolutely needed if they were to break through Russia’s defensive lines. The Defense Department calculated that the Ukrainian forces needed at least 90,000 shells a month to achieve its military goals, but the US would only be able to provide one-tenth of that even under expanded production.
What Sullivan and the others concluded was that they needed to seek help from South Korea. “The Pentagon calculated that about 330,000 155mm shells could be transferred by air and sea within 41 days if Seoul could be persuaded,” the Washington Post reported.
There was an obstacle, though: South Korean government regulations on the import and export of strategic materials prohibit the supply of lethal weaponry to war zones.
According to the Washington Post, the South Korean government was “receptive” to the US’ proposal “as long as the provision was indirect” — as long, that is, as the shells weren’t shipped directly to Ukraine.
However, the newspaper didn’t specify whether the South Korean shells were provided directly to Ukraine, whether the shells passed through the US on their way to Ukraine, or whether the US shipped its own shells to Ukraine and then refilled its stockpile with shells from South Korea.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol directly mentioned the possibility of providing armaments to Ukraine in his interview with Reuters on April 19, before his state visit to the US. The next day, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned South Korea that it would regard such aid as an “openly hostile anti-Russia action.”
“Such moves will have an extremely negative effect on our relations with the countries that make them, which we will consider when formulating Russia’s stance on issues related to the fundamental security interests of the countries concerned. In the case of South Korea, it may concern our approaches to a settlement on the Korean Peninsula,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said at the time.
Since Putin’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in September, Russia has boosted strategic cooperation with the North and expressed its willingness to transfer satellite launch technology to the North.
South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense didn’t respond directly to the Washington Post’s reporting. When asked during the daily press conference on Tuesday whether the Korean government had altered its position of not providing lethal weapons, ministry spokesperson Jeon Ha-gyu said, “The military has provided humanitarian aid and war supplies to defend the freedom of Ukraine. The government’s position remains unchanged.”
While the South Korean government has provided Ukraine with nonlethal military supplies, including gas masks, it has maintained its official stance of not providing lethal weaponry, such as firearms or shells.
However, Jeon shied away from the key question of whether Korea has provided lethal aid in an indirect or roundabout fashion. “I can’t comment because I’m not sure about the exact meaning of ‘indirect support,’” he said.
Sources in the South Korean defense industry say that South Korea has lent the US 500,000 rounds of 155 mm shells, which the US is using to replenish the artillery stockpile depleted by aid to Ukraine.
Separately, the South Korean defense industry exported 100,000 155 mm shells to the US last year on the condition that the US be the end user.
By Lee Bon-young, Washington correspondent; Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter
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