Seoul denies it is supplying artillery shells to Ukraine via US following WSJ report

Posted on : 2023-05-26 16:54 KST Modified on : 2023-05-26 16:54 KST
The Wall Street Journal reported that a breakthrough on the issue was reached during the April 26 summit between South Korea and the US
Ukrainian forces use a US-made M777 lightweight towed howitzer near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on March 17. (AFP/Yonhap)
Ukrainian forces use a US-made M777 lightweight towed howitzer near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on March 17. (AFP/Yonhap)

A US media outlet reported that South Korea has begun the process of providing artillery shells to Ukraine following President Yoon Suk-yeol’s state visit to the US in April 2023. The report has been denied by the presidential office, which has maintained that the government’s position “has not changed.”

However, with Washington’s expectations that South Korea will provide military aid to Ukraine being raised, Yoon is unlikely to be able to maintain his current noncommittal stance.

“South Korea is proceeding with the transfer of hundreds of thousands of artillery rounds for Ukraine,” the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday (local time), citing unnamed US government officials.

The news outlet claimed that South Korea made the decision to transfer the shells to the US under a confidential agreement in November 2022, but had been reluctant to follow through with the action. They also claimed that a breakthrough was reached at the April 26 summit between South Korea and the US, explaining the change in attitude.

During last month’s summit, the two leaders announced the Washington Declaration, which outlined the creation of a South Korea-US Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) to strengthen US commitments to extended deterrence. The recent reporting gives weight to the idea that South Korea decided to provide artillery to Ukraine in exchange for the declaration.

However, an official from the presidential office told Hankyoreh on Thursday (KST) that the government’s position has not changed. At a regular briefing Defense Ministry spokesman Jeon Ha-kyu also said that there has been “no change in the basic position regarding support for Ukraine,” but that “the government will take appropriate measures while comprehensively reviewing the war situation and humanitarian situation in Ukraine.”

When it comes to South Korea’s artillery support to Ukraine, reports in April raised the possibility of an indirect support system, with South Korea loaning the US 155mm howitzer shells while the US provides “its own” shell supplies to Ukraine. South Korea’s presidential office and the Defense Ministry did not comment at the time.

The government appears to be carefully weighing whether to provide military assistance to Ukraine, following Yoon’s recent visit to the United States and his meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine on Sunday in Japan.

Appearing before the National Assembly’s Steering Committee on Wednesday, National Security Office Director Cho Tae-yong was asked if South Korea would provide ammunition to Ukraine. “We will review the situation after examining the situation and considering other circumstances,” he said.

However, as the Wall Street Journal reported, Yoon made several comments before and during his state visit to the US that suggested Seoul might change its long-standing policy of not providing aid in the form of lethal weapons.

“It might be difficult for us to insist only on humanitarian or financial support,” he told Reuters on April 19, citing the possibility of a “large-scale attack on civilians.”

“Therefore, if the time comes when we must also supply some lethal weapons to Ukraine, when the situation on the battlefront changes, there won’t be a situation of South Korea turning away from the joint effort of the international community,” Yoon stated in an interview with NBC during his visit to the US.

Classified US documents leaked in April that appeared to show the CIA eavesdropping on senior officials at South Korea’s National Security Office also show that the South Korean government discussed ways to indirectly provide 330,000 domestically produced 155mm shells to Ukraine via Poland.

At the Steering Committee meeting on Wednesday, Cho reiterated that “there is no direct [artillery] support to Ukraine,” and that “claims that we will indirectly support Ukraine via Poland are false.”

“With the West giving full support to Ukraine against Russia, which has violated international law, it will be difficult to go against their decisions,” said one Yoon administration official. However, even after providing the shells, the presidential office may uphold its claim that it is only “considering” aid so as to avoid Russian retaliation.

By Park Byong-su, senior staff writer; Kim Mi-na, staff reporter

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