21.03.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

South Korea at the Ukrainian Crossroads

South Korea

A year has passed since Russia launched a special military operation to denazify Ukraine’s criminal regime. Against this backdrop, various parties continue to try to draw South Korea into the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. According to the British newspaper The Telegraph, the Republic of Korea is currently ranked 27th out of 57 countries providing aid to Ukraine. In 2022, the ROK provided Kyiv with $100 million in humanitarian aid, including medicine, ambulances, computers and power generators.

On February 24, Korea decided to tighten export controls on Russia and Belarus, significantly expanding the list of goods subject to export restrictions—an additional 741 items were added to the list of goods banned for delivery to Russia and Belarus relating to chemicals, steel, cars, machinery, quantum computers and other goods, including machine tools, oil and gas processing equipment.

At a February 27 briefing, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the South Korean government’s decision “was made in line with the anti-Russian policy of the Washington-led collective West.” The new South Korean restrictions have once again demonstrated the limits of Seoul’s ability to pursue an independent policy on Russia. This will damage Russian-South Korean cooperation, which has already suffered severely after the ROK had joined the first sanction package of the “collective West.”  The unfriendly actions of the ROK will affect not only the whole complex of bilateral ties, but also the quality of cooperation between the two countries in the sphere of the Korean settlement.

On February 23, representatives of the US military (US and Korean Joint Forces Command), the ROK (Joint Chiefs of Staff) and Ukraine (specific entity not named) participated in a videoconference at Camp Humphreys, a US military base in the ROK. During the meeting, the sides discussed humanitarian actions of the ROK military toward civilians during war and peacetime. It was separately emphasized that this kind of activity is allegedly not connected in any way with, and does not provide for, the participation of the ROK army or USFK in the implementation of such activities on the Ukrainian soil.

Nevertheless, more is expected from Seoul in the West, although according to some political analysts, the ROK’s passivity with regard to providing lethal assistance to Ukraine is explained by its desire to maintain a significant economic partnership with Russia and China, and may also make it difficult for the Yoon administration to convince China to support its interests in the North Korean direction. In addition, South Korean law makes it difficult to sell arms directly to countries in active conflict.

We’ve written before about how Yoon Suk-yeol was pushed by the NATO Secretary General, demanding that South Korea “step up“. But he is not the only one to exert pressure. For example, an anonymous Western diplomatic source in Seoul told Reuters that “South Korea should do more, and we regularly communicate that to the Yoon administration.”

On March 2, 2023 National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby said that whether South Korea will provide direct military assistance to Ukraine “depends on the country itself“, but, as they used to say during the author’s youth, “volunteering is strictly mandatory.”

Dmitry Ponomarenko, Ukraine’s ambassador to the ROK, is also conducting a fairly active campaign to promote his country. On the one hand, he quite actively praises Seoul for its help, but on the other he says that more could be done, periodically drawing incorrect parallels with the Korean War, in which, in his opinion, “the international community united and expelled the aggressor.”  Thus, on February 23, Ponomarenko said he expected Seoul to join the global effort to “ensure a lasting and just peace” in his country and guarantee global security. He stressed that Kyiv will not stop until it wins.

During a February 27 seminar organized by the Korea Institute for Defense Studies (KIDA), Ponomarenko said: “I hope that the Korean government will find a solution to the issue of supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine.”   The ambassador specifically noted that his country needs artillery shells of NATO standard, 155 millimeters. He also demanded a total ban on Russian energy imports, removal of Russian banks from the SWIFT payment system, a complete ban on Russian media outlets outside Russia, an unconditional withdrawal of foreign companies from the Russian market as well as a ban on Russian tourists from the EU, G7 and other parts of the world.

On February 25, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also stated that it would be good if his country received South Korean weapons.

Another line of pressure comes from statements by Western experts, printed in abundance by the center-right Korea Times, which is controlled by the conservative faction that opposes Yoon Suk-yeol.

Peter K. Lee, a fellow at the Center for United States Studies at the University of Sydney, told the Korea Times that “Korea is perfectly placed to support the defense capability needs of liberal democracies around the world.” Zach Cooper of the American Enterprise Institute and a former US National Security Council official says Poland could re-export South Korean weapons to Ukraine if the Korean and Polish governments agree to do so.

Sarah E. Kreps of the Brookings Institution observes that US non-NATO allies, including South Korea, are not obliged to provide material assistance to Ukraine. Nonetheless, “a Putin victory would create further instability in Europe and call into question the effectiveness of US efforts to maintain a rules-based order,” with South Korea being a key supporter of the Biden administration’s initiatives.

Other Western experts have pushed the concept of a “global Korea”. According to this concept, since the ROK is a regional power, it is supposedly obliged to be a responsible member of the world community and deal with problems all over the world, not just around the peninsula.

As for appeals on the part of ROK citizens, more pro-Ukrainian statements are made not so much by supporters of Yoon Suk-yeol but by their ideological opponents – both democrats and opposing factions within the People’s Power, such as former Chairman Lee Jun-seok, who actually went to Ukraine without consulting the Foreign Ministry and met with Zelensky, and is now advocating the supply of lethal weapons to Ukraine. In an interview with the Korea Times”  Lee Jun-seok openly calls for an analogue of the Lend-Lease Act and directly hints that “if Seoul supplies actual military weapons to Ukraine (directly) and these are to be used in the war, then this will be a huge boost to the country in terms of amplifying weapons-based confidence-building measures.” And it would also boost exports of South Korean weapons that would perform well in combat.

Now let’s move on to talk about actual arms deliveries. Although Volodymyr Zelensky’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak admitted in an interview with the Korean media that Kyiv and Seoul are negotiating direct deliveries of weapons and military equipment to Ukraine, the situation is more complicated.

First of all, at Ponomarenko’s suggestion, the media was informed about the possible purchase of 155 mm guns from the depots of the Korean army under the command of the American military contingent. Seoul has nothing to do with this, but for the author, by the way, this is an important indication that the shell-hunger much written about in the West and in the TG channels with regard to Russia is in fact not the Russian problem at all.

Secondly, negotiations are allegedly underway with the Pentagon to sell 155 mm shells to the US provided that they will only be used to replenish the dwindling US military reserves, as Washington supplied Ukraine with huge amounts of weapons and ammunition.  Allegedly Washington has said it wants to send the ammunition to Ukraine, but South Korea insists that the end user must be the United States.

Third, on March 8, Reuters, citing a representative of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) in the ROK, reported that Seoul decided last year to approve an export license allowing Poland to supply Ukraine with Krab self-propelled artillery units, which are manufactured by the Polish company HSW using the chassis of the South Korean K9 self-propelled gun. To date, Poland has shipped at least 18 self-propelled guns to Ukraine.

According to the authors of this leaked information, it confirms that “South Korea has officially agreed, at least indirectly, to supply Ukraine with weapons components for the latter’s war against Russia,” but the ROK Ministry of Defense issued a commentary from which it follows that the South Korean side still adheres to the position of not directly supplying lethal military equipment to Ukraine. The deliveries of the chassis do not, however, fall under this category as this is not a Korean weapons system, but a piece of equipment that uses only individual components manufactured by the ROK, along with products from other countries.

Fourth, the ROK signed a major deal with Poland for $5.8 billion in 2022 to supply hundreds of Chungmu missile launchers, K2 tanks, K9 self-propelled howitzers and FA-50 fighters. However, according to representatives of the South Korean defense procurement agency, Poland would need additional South Korean permission to provide any of these new weapons to Ukraine, as the sales were aimed at strengthening Poland’s defense capabilities, not helping a third party.

There is also some calculation that reports of alleged North Korean aid to Russia should persuade the South to cross the line. However, on February 7, an anonymous diplomatic source told RIA Novosti that experts of the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee on North Korea had not found any confirmation of US allegations of arms shipments from North Korea to Russia.

In summary: The ROK is holding out for now, and Yoon Suk-yeol’s government is not going to risk its own interests so much to please the US. On February 27, 2023 the South Korean Defense Ministry reiterated its official position of refusing to directly supply weapons, military equipment and ammunition to Kyiv, and on March 3 in an interview with CNN’s Quest Means Business, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said that South Korea had not yet decided whether to send lethal weapons to Ukraine, despite calls from Ukraine. Nonetheless South Korean aid to Ukraine will be increased to $130 million in 2023.

The question is whether Seoul will withstand the next round of pressure.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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