Will The Republic Of Korea Dispatch Lethal Aid To Ukraine?
President Yoon’s decision could be a game-changer since his country can either contribute to perpetuating this conflict by keeping Ukraine in its aforesaid military-industrial competition with Russia or play a decisive role in drawing it to a close. He’s clearly under immense pressure from the US to do the first-mentioned so it would be an impressive display of strategic autonomy if the ROK ends up doing the second by refusing to send shells to Ukraine.
Republic of Korea (ROK) President Yoon Suk-yeol told Reuters on Wednesday that his country was considering the dispatch of lethal aid to Ukraine if the humanitarian situation descends into a deeper crisis as a result of alleged Russian war crimes. In his words, “If there is a situation the international community cannot condone, such as any large-scale attack on civilians, massacre or serious violation of the laws of war, it might be difficult for us to insist only on humanitarian or financial support.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned that “any weapons supplies would imply a certain involvement in this conflict.” That same day, former Russian President and incumbent Deputy Chair of the National Security Council Dmitry Medvedev wrote the following on social media: “I wonder what the residents of this nation would say when they see the newest example of Russian weapons in possession of their closest neighbors, our partners from the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]?”
The ROK’s Yonhap News Agency then cited an unnamed senior presidential official on Thursday to report that “Decision on lethal aid to Ukraine depends on Russia's actions”. According to their source, “The reason we are not taking such action voluntarily is because we want to simultaneously and in a balanced manner fulfill the task of stably maintaining and managing South Korea-Russia relations while actively joining the ranks of the international community in defending the freedom of the Ukrainian people.”
The larger context within which the latest ROK-Russian spat is playing out concerns President Yoon’s upcoming trip to the US next week, during which time it’s expected that US President Joe Biden will request that his country participate in some sort of arrangement for dispatching lethal aid to Ukraine. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg declared in mid-February that his US-led military bloc is in a so-called “race of logistics”/“war of attrition” with Russia in Ukraine, and it’ll struggle to win without help.
Its members have already depleted a considerable amount of their stockpiles over the past 14 months, yet the conflict still continues raging on. Without maintaining the pace, scale, and scope of their lethal aid to Ukraine, that country might soon be at a major disadvantage vis-à-vis Russia, which could further delay its planned NATO-backed counteroffensive and possibly create the conditions for a ceasefire if Moscow is able to then consolidate its on-the-ground gains in the territories that Kiev claims as its own.
This explains the urgency with which the US is searching across the world for additional ammunition to arm Ukraine. Considering the ROK’s enormous shell stockpile that it’s built up over the decades in preparation of possibly fighting the DPRK once again, it makes sense why the US is approaching it. Nevertheless, Seoul’s compliance with Washington’s request could lead to Moscow arming Pyongyang with “the newest example of Russian weapons” exactly as Medvedev warned on social media.
For that reason, ROK officials remain divided on this ultra-sensitive issue as proven by the latest Pentagon leaks, yet they’ll ultimately have to do something since the resultant dilemma is unsustainable. President Yoon will probably be forced to make a choice during his upcoming trip to the US. On the one hand, directly arming Ukraine per the US’ wishes could prompt Russia to arm the DPRK, yet declining to dispatch lethal aid to that Eastern European country could lead to Seoul falling out of Washington’s favor.
Objectively speaking, the second scenario is much more aligned with the ROK’s national interests than the first, though President Yoon might end up trying to reach a so-called “compromise” under heavy US pressure. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki proposed precisely that in an interview with the New York Times earlier this month where he suggested that Biden convince his ROK counterpart to indirectly supply Ukraine with much-needed artillery shells via Poland.
Poland and the ROK signed a $5.8 billion artillery and tank deal last summer, and the latter’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration's (DAPA) technology control bureau already approved a license for the export of partially ROK-built Krab howitzers to Ukraine last year according Kim Hyoung-cheol. He’s the director of the Europe-Asia division of the International Cooperation Bureau and confirmed this fact when talking to Reuters last month.
The precedent is therefore established at least in principle for the ROK to ship shells to Poland prior to their re-export to Ukraine under US supervision, but the relevant license would obviously first have to be approved, which will likely be discussed during President Yoon’s upcoming meeting with Biden. If that happens, however, then Russia might react furiously and even possibly arm the DPRK because these shell shipments would be much more strategically significant in the present context than the Krabs were.
It was certainly an unfriendly move for the ROK to approve the export of those systems that it partially built, but that development’s importance in shaping the dynamics of the present conflict pales in comparison to what could occur if it facilitates the massive re-export of artillery shells at this time. Doing so would enable Ukraine to remain in the so-called “race of logistics”/“war of attrition” with Russia, while declining to participate in this scheme could create the conditions for a ceasefire with time.
Assessed from this perspective, it can therefore be concluded that President Yoon’s decision could be a game-changer since his country can either contribute to perpetuating this conflict by keeping Ukraine in its aforesaid military-industrial competition with Russia or play a decisive role in drawing it to a close. He’s clearly under immense pressure from the US to do the first-mentioned so it would be an impressive display of strategic autonomy if the ROK ends up doing the second by refusing to send shells to Ukraine.