S. Korea to loan 155mm artillery shells to US

Posted on : 2023-04-13 17:20 KST Modified on : 2023-04-13 17:20 KST
This comes amid controversy over Korea circumventing its principle of not supplying lethal weapons or munitions to Ukraine
A US soldier watches as 155mm artillery shells are moved at an airbase in Delaware on April 29, 2022. (AP/Yonhap)
A US soldier watches as 155mm artillery shells are moved at an airbase in Delaware on April 29, 2022. (AP/Yonhap)

New reports show that South Korea and the US reached an arrangement where the former would lend the latter 155-millimeter shells for use in howitzers and other weaponry.

The US has been requesting shells from South Korea since last year as its own stockpiles have been depleted by assistance to Ukraine in its war with Russia.

South Korea’s approach of providing the US with “loans” of shells rather than sales (exports) suggests it is conscious of the potential for accusations that it is providing Ukraine indirectly with lethal weapons.

According to accounts Wednesday from defense industry insiders and others, South Korea and the US recently agreed on a contractual arrangement where South Korea would loan 155mm shells to the US.

A decision is reportedly to be made on whether the shells lent by the US will come from volumes produced by South Korean companies or the military’s existing stockpiles.

Among the possible candidates are 155mm shells that the US first brought to South Korea in the 1970s as part of its War Reserve Stocks for Allies (WRSA-K) to prepare for a possible total war on the Korean Peninsula, but that ended up being acquired by South Korea in 2008 due to the associated management costs.

The scale of the loan is estimated at around 300,000 to 500,000 shells. The loan dates appear likely to remain undefined, with a future decision to be based on the situation with the US’ own shell reserves.

The method of providing shells as a loan is being interpreted as a compromise that would allow the South Korean government to stick to its principle of not providing assistance with lethal weapons, but without totally ignoring requests for weapon support from Ukraine and the US.

According to an analysis made in November 2022, the exportation of 100,000 South Korean 155mm shells to the US on the condition that it would be the “end user” would ultimately result in South Korean shells being sent to Ukraine. Even if South Korea added the proviso that the exports were intended for the US as an end user, it would have no way of checking or controlling their actual use once they had been purchased by the US.

Under an arrangement where South Korea lends shells to the US while retaining ownership of them, it would have a basis for demanding their return if South Korean-made shells were determined to have been used in Ukraine in violation of the loan’s conditions.

But even that arrangement leaves open the possibility for a system of indirect support, where the US supplements its own shell shortage with borrowed shells from South Korea and takes advantage of the new breathing room to provide its own shells to Ukraine. This means the potential for controversy over supplying indirect aid to Ukraine would remain alive.

A classified US CIA document including evidence of eavesdropping on South Korean National Security Office officials refers to discussions ahead of a South Korea-US summit, with former National Security Office chief Kim Sung-han and former presidential foreign affairs secretary Lee Mun-hee talking about an indirect approach where 330,000 South Korea-made 155mm shells would be indirectly provided to Ukraine by way of Poland.

The controversy over apparent communications monitoring has focused attention on whether the summit scheduled for April 26 will include discussions on indirect weapon aid to Ukraine.

Even after the allegations of US eavesdropping, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense continued asserting that there had been “no change in our conditions of not providing lethal weapon aid to Ukraine and on the US being the end user of shells exported to the US.”

Ministry officials said Wednesday that they were “not able to confirm” whether South Korea would be lending shells to the US.

When asked about the plan by reporters at the National Assembly that day, Minister of Foreign Affairs Park Jin said, “There is nothing I can confirm at this time.”

“The government adheres to the position that it does not provide lethal weapon assistance to Ukraine,” he added.

After providing Ukraine last year with non-lethal military items such as gas masks, tents, blankets, combat rations, and medications, South Korea announced this year that it planned to send US$130 million worth of humanitarian assistance, with a focus on restoring power grids, providing healthcare equipment, and building or rebuilding infrastructure.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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