Will South Korea Send Weapons to Ukraine? It Did Not Say 'No'
As the Ukraine War is nearing its first anniversary, pressure remains high on allies of the West to send support to Ukraine’s freedom fighters. Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022 in the guise of liberating provinces that it claimed wanted to be part of Russia.
Russian dictator Vladimir Putin infamously miscalculated the cost of the war, initially claiming that it would be all over in three days. As the conflict raged on and stretched into a protracted war, nations friendly to Ukraine—mostly U.S. allies and NATO members—have sent military equipment and even volunteer fighters to repel the Russians.
Now, South Korea—a non-NATO member but a key ally of the U.S. in Asia—is being asked if it would be willing to send weapons to Ukraine.
When asked about whether the country would send weapons to Ukraine, South Korea’s Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup responded with an vague answer, saying they are aware of the “need for the international effort” and that his government was “directing our close attention” to the war.
Jong-sup’s comments come on the backdrop of international pressure on the Asian country to start exporting weapons to Ukraine. Just a day before Jong-sup’s comment, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urged South Korea to reconsider exporting defense goods “only for peaceful purposes.”
What makes the situation even stickier is the reported shipments of missiles by North Korea to Russia because the latter is running out of missiles to fire at Ukraine.
The Washington Post elaborates on the situation:
Lee’s remarks, in a news conference here with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, came a day after NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urged South Korea to change its policy of exporting defense goods “only for peaceful purposes.” Countries such as Germany, Norway and others, Stoltenberg said during his own visit here Monday, had changed their stance “because they realized that when you are facing a brutal invasion where a big power — Russia — invades another one in a blatant way as we have seen in Ukraine, if we believe in freedom, if we believe in democracy, if we don’t want autocracy and tyranny to win, then they need weapons.” South Korea has provided humanitarian and other nonlethal assistance directly to Ukraine. The United States has said North Korea is sending missiles to Russia to supplement its waning supplies.
To seal the argument, Stoltenberg cited countries that also initially refused to send weapons to Ukraine but are now among its major war benefactors.
"At the end of the day, it's a decision for you to make, but I'll say that several NATO allies who have had as a policy to never export weapons to countries in a conflict have changed that policy now," Stoltenberg said, citing Germany, Sweden, and Norway.
Back in November 2022, the Wall Street Journal reported how South Korea planned to sell arms to the U.S., which in turn will send the weapons to Ukraine:
South Korea will for the first time sell artillery shells destined for Ukrainian forces through a confidential arms deal between Seoul and Washington, a move that reflects a global scramble for munitions after months of war with Russia. U.S. officials familiar with the deal said that the U.S. will purchase 100,000 rounds of 155mm artillery ammunition that will be delivered to Ukraine, enough to supply Ukraine’s artillery units for at least several weeks of intensive combat. Routing the deal through the U.S. allows South Korea to stick to the letter of its public commitment not to send lethal military support to Ukraine while assisting Washington, Seoul’s paramount ally in deterring North Korea.
South Korea’s weapons and defense equipment exports have ballooned in recent years. It is one of the major suppliers of warships for the Philippines, which received two of its naval flagships BRP Jose Rizal and BRP Antonio Luna from South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries or HHI. South Korea is also one of the leading manufacturers of jet fighters. It supplied the Philippines' first state-of-the-art jet fighters, the FA-50. The country is also a manufacturing powerhouse for Howitzers, tanks, and missiles, which is probably why NATO wants it to have a bigger role in aiding Ukraine.
In November 2022, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol boasted how the country had joined the ranks of the world’s top arms manufacturers.
“By entering the world’s top four defense exporters after the United States, Russia and France, the (South Korean) defense industry will become a strategic industrialization and a defense powerhouse,” Yoon said.
In the same month, Putin accused South Korea of exporting arms to Kyiv, an assertion denied by President Yoon, as reported by CNN:
In a statement issued after the planned purchase was first revealed in The Wall Street Journal, the South Korean Defense Ministry said it had not changed its position on shipping weapons to Ukraine, and that it believed the “end user” of the ammunition was the US. Russian President Vladimir Putin had said late last month that South Korea had decided to send “arms and ammunition” to Kyiv, which would “ruin our relations” with them – a claim denied a day later by President Yoon.
Through the decades, South Korea has developed a self-reliant military industry, driven by the lingering threat from North Korea. When the U.S. “abandoned” South Korea to focus on its new war in Vietnam, the South decided to gird its loins and start producing its own arms using funds from the U.S. By 1980, South Korea was fully equipped with the technology and manpower to produce all basic weaponry, according to a government report in 2014.