Over the past few days, the author has come across several fake news reports on Korean arms supplies to Ukraine. Both from the North and the South.
On the one hand, there is ongoing speculation in the West that the DPRK is allegedly supplying or intends to supply Russia with munitions for use in Ukraine, although such speculation is only true if the DPRK has secretly already built a teleportation machine. Well, or this is a case of “bold assumptions.”
However, Pentagon Press Secretary Pat Ryder reiterated on November 15 that the United States is working with its allies and partners to monitor North Korea’s supply of artillery shells to Russia. The general declined to comment on whether the US had tried to prevent this.
On November 24, during an exclusive interview with the Yonhap News Agency, First Deputy Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine Oleksandr Kornienko said that military cooperation between North Korea and Russia cannot be ruled out.
In a webinar hosted by the Washington-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies on December 2, 2022, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Eliot Kahn not only claimed that Moscow was doing little to enforce Security Council resolutions on North Korea, but specifically noted that Russia allegedly continues to allow numerous North Korean workers to earn income in its jurisdiction in defiance of the UN Security Council resolution and is in the process of acquiring prohibited munitions from the North to support the invasion of Ukraine. As always, no evidence was presented.
In addition to fake news about shells, Western propaganda floods the media with overwhelming amounts of all kinds of disinformation. First, it is “information” about the alleged recruitment of North Korean workers: in the summer and fall, the South Korean Daily NK reported several times that the DPRK was actively recruiting more and more workers to send to eastern Ukraine.
Another fake story was launched by Radio Free Asia, which, citing unnamed sources in North Korea, claimed that three Pyongyang factories were sewing uniforms for the Russian military engaged in the special military operation in Ukraine using Russian fabric. “Journalists” even had the audacity to send a comment to the Russian Embassy, after which, on November 12, the diplomatic mission’s social media page advised the journalist to choose a career as a science fiction writer.
On December 7, Spokesperson for the US Department of State Ned Price again told that Russia continues to seek weapons from North Korea and Iran for use in its war against Ukraine. And again – with no evidence. Against this backdrop, the National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby seems a paragon of honesty: “We know that the Russians continue to express interest in obtaining North Korean artillery…. (but) I don’t believe we can say today that we’ve seen definite indications that that transaction has been consummated.”
However, there is much more interest in the information from the other side. It tells the story that South rather than North Korean weapons may appear in the conflict zone.
In September 2022, the Czech publication iDNES claimed that the US was preparing a new scheme to supply Ukraine with weapons: allegedly, a certain Czech arms company would soon receive for transfer to Ukraine South Korean Shingung missile systems (KP-SAM) manufactured by LIG Nex1, designed to counter Russian drones and attack aircraft. The $2.9 billion deal is paid for from the US budget, but has yet to be implemented due to the South Korean government’s official policy of non-interference. On October 2, 2022, the ROK media also wrote about this, although claiming that it is not true: the Czech Republic allegedly has South Korean weapons, but acquired a long time ago, the US started to re-buy them to send them from the Czech Republic to Ukraine already in its own name.
In this context, speaking at a plenary session of the Valdai international discussion club on October 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the decision to supply arms and ammunition to Ukraine “will destroy our relations”. And this can refer to both direct and indirect supplies, when South Korean weapons are sent via third countries or go as replacements for those supplied to Ukraine. Vladimir Putin said that Russia was aware of the Republic of Korea’s plans to supply arms and ammunition to Ukraine, referring to indirect supplies via Poland.
The next day, on October 28, ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol reiterated that the country had never provided lethal weapons to Ukraine; although aid is a matter of “South Korean sovereignty,” Seoul tries to maintain peaceful and good relations with all countries, including Russia.
However, on November 11, the Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed US officials, reported that the US was planning to purchase 100,000 155mm artillery shells from the ROK for subsequent transfer to Ukraine, while previously the US military contingent in South Korea (USFK) had already handed over some of its ammunition in the ROK to Kiev (https://newsis.com/view/?id=NISX20221111_0002082163).
On the same day, the ROK Ministry of Defense confirmed that Seoul and Washington were discussing supplies of shells to make up for shortages in US arsenals, and the issue was discussed during talks between the defense ministers of the two countries in early November. But the talks are based on the assumption that the ammunition will be used by the US Army.
The latest fake story, that the US is planning to buy 100,000 shells for 155mm artillery pieces from the ROK for supply to Ukraine, was reported by CNN in late November, citing an unnamed Pentagon official. The CNN news comes amid reports that the US is running out of weapons to send to Kiev, and one of the problems is the 155mm artillery ammunition currently being used on the battlefields in Ukraine. As the ROK media wrote, compared to the US, South Korea’s weapons stockpile is quite large, given that South and North Korea are technically still at war, which helps South Korean manufacturers to continue producing ammunition. In addition, Yoon Suk-yeol sees arms exports as one way out of the emerging economic crisis. He said the ROK will aim to become the world’s fourth largest arms exporter by 2027, taking at least 5% of the industry market.
Commenting on the announcement, Col. Moon Hong-sik of the ROK Ministry of Defense reiterated on November 28 that the US is the end user of South Korean-made artillery shells. Similar reports are citing unnamed officials, but in this case more precise information is needed.
Thus, South Korea does not deny supplying weapons to the US or other countries, while a number of the author’s local respondents, following the South Korean President, emphasize that there will be no direct supplies to Ukraine, the US is the end user, and the deal with Poland even provides for a ban on transferring these weapons to Ukraine.
Of course, the author does not know whether the contract between Poland and the ROK restricts the supply or transfer of arms to third parties. But the whole situation does not bode well.
Although the ROK has been placed on Russia’s list of unfriendly countries, it remains the friendliest of the unfriendly. Without wishing to zero out economic cooperation, Seoul says it is “together with the international community” on the Ukrainian issue, but is not particularly keen to jump ahead. Moreover, some South Korean companies are not only reluctant to leave the Russian market, but are buying up the property of those firms that have actually left.
Such defiance is certainly not to the liking of Washington, which would like relations between Moscow and Seoul to be as messy as those with other US allies. There is a sense that the US is deliberately pushing the ROK and Russia towards a bigger rift, and the fake about “arms deal” in the US media, citing secret sources and without confirmation, was intended to drive an additional wedge into relations between Seoul and Moscow.
Moreover, knowing Moscow’s concerns about the possibility of South Korean arms supplies to Ukraine, Washington is in a position to stage a provocation, realizing that Moscow might be furious and not particularly concerned about whether Seoul knew where the US weapons were going or whether it was “set up.” After all, such a move would be perceived by Moscow as crossing red lines and would be a reason for retaliation.
The possibility of this, incidentally, is also recognized by South Korean experts. On November 11, Jeh Sung-hoon, head of the Russian Studies Department at the University of Foreign Studies, told RIA Novosti that Washington is seeking artillery supplies from the ROK not for military assistance to Ukraine but to chill relations between Seoul and Moscow and make South Korea even more deeply involved in the anti-Russian front.
Park Byung-hwan, a former Consul Ambassador at the South Korean Embassy in Moscow and now director of the South Korean Institute for Eurasian Strategic Studies, also told RIA Novosti that in the current circumstances there is a possibility of “hidden” supplies of South Korean arms to Ukraine, unless there are direct instructions in the contract from Seoul not to send weapons there.
Shin Jong-woo, a senior researcher at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, believes that “if the US purchases the artillery shells from us based on an agreement that the US will be the end user, but it changes its mind later in order to transfer them to Ukraine, we cannot take issue with the decision after selling them.” It is absurd to be interested in who the end user will be as “… exporting countries have few options even if end users do something illegal with their exports.”
On the contrary, Victor Cha, a well-known hawk, who is in charge of Korean affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, writes directly that “the Yoon government should consider arming Ukraine in earnest. Russia has already sanctioned South Korea for joining multilateral sanctions against it, and now, it is already accusing Seoul of doing so. Thus, the Yoon government should go ahead and provide such support to the besieged country as requested by President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in his speech to the South Korean National Assembly in April 2022.”
Thus so far, despite the media fuss, none of the fakes about Korean weapons in Ukraine has been confirmed with regard to either the North or the South. Here’s hoping that such propaganda will never become a reality.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”