South Korea’s president has signaled a significant shift in his country’s stance on weapons supplies to Ukraine, suggesting that if Russia launches a large-scale attack on civilians, it might extend assistance beyond humanitarian and economic aid.
What has South Korea’s stance been up to now?
South Korea has longstanding policies against the export of weapons to governments in active conflict, which it has said makes it difficult to provide arms directly to Ukraine.
Seoul has directly provided non-lethal and humanitarian aid to Kyiv, and since the invasion has signed deals to sell hundreds of tanks to European countries, including NATO-member Poland.
Due to the decades-long conflict with its rogue neighbor in the north, South Korea also produces large quantities of 155mm artillery shells, badly needed by Ukraine, particularly as it stocks up on supplies ahead of an expected counteroffensive in the coming weeks.
South Korea has not yet sent these shells directly to Ukraine but has reached deals with countries such as the US in which it “lends” them to Washington, freeing up American supplies of the ammunition to send on to Kyiv.
What’s South Korea’s new stance?
In an interview with Reuters, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol indicated his country would be willing to shift its stance if certain developments in Ukraine occurred.
He said: “If there is a situation the international community cannot condone, such as any large-scale attack on civilians, massacres or serious violation of the laws of war, it might be difficult for us to insist only on humanitarian or financial support.
“I believe there won’t be limitations to the extent of the support to defend and restore a country that’s been illegally invaded both under international and domestic law.”
Hasn’t Russia already committed large-scale attack on civilians, massacres and serious violation of the laws of war?
Yes, and they’ve been well-documented, from the massacres in Bucha, the bombing of the Mariupol theater to the months-long campaign to destroy civilian infrastructure and freeze Ukrainians to death over the winter.
So why is South Korea only changing its stance now?
South Korea has been under pressure from its allies to ramp up its support for Ukraine for months now. In January, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg asked the country to “step up” military supplies and reconsider its policy of not exporting weapons to countries in conflict.
Stoltenberg said Germany and Norway, among others, had similar policies in place that were revised after Putin invaded Ukraine in February last year.
There’s also the ongoing fallout from the recent leaking of US intelligence documents, which revealed South Korea’s National Security Council was “mired in concerns” over the possibility that Washington would give Ukraine ammunition it was seeking from Seoul.
South Korea has said a “significant portion” of the documents were fake, yet the saga has put a spotlight on the fact the country is sitting on vast quantities of the weapons that Ukraine so badly needs.
The revelation of the purported Ukraine discussions among top national security officials has sparked criticism in South Korea about the vulnerability of sensitive sites including the presidential office.
But President Yoon Suk-yeol’s office pushed back, saying it had “iron-clad security” and that allegations of eavesdropping were “senseless lies.”
Yoon is scheduled to travel to the United States later this month on a state visit.
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