Experts: Arming Ukraine Via US Could Worsen South Korea’s Ties with Russia

South Korea, with a world-class arms industry, is facing mounting pressure to find a way to get needed arms and munitions to Ukraine without unduly angering Russia, which has hinted that it could resume military cooperation with North Korea.

Experts interviewed by VOA say the most likely solution under consideration in Seoul is for the nation’s commercial arms manufacturers to make private sales to the United States, allowing the U.S to ship more of its own armaments to Ukraine without depleting its stockpiles.

A spokesperson for the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs told VOA Korean Service on Wednesday that the administration in Seoul “has been providing humanitarian support to the people of Ukraine” but “there has not been a change” in its position that it “will not send lethal weapons to Ukraine.”

Depleted stockpiles

Since the Russian invasion, Washington’s military aid to Kyiv has depleted U.S. weapons stockpiles.

The Ukraine Defense Contact Group, a U.S.-led coalition of about 50 countries, has been sending Kyiv weaponry ranging from High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) to howitzers. The U.S. and Germany announced Wednesday that they will send 31 M1 Abrams tanks and 14 Leopard 2 tanks, respectively. Additional tanks have been promised by other NATO countries.

Ukraine is using about 90,000 artillery rounds per month while the U.S. and European countries are producing only half that amount among them, according to The New York Times, citing U.S. and Western officials.

The U.S. has asked the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) to route some of its equipment stockpiled in South Korea to Ukraine, USFK spokesperson Isaac Taylor told the VOA Korean Service on Jan. 19.

And Washington “has been in discussion about potential sales of ammunition” from South Korea’s “non-government industrial defense base,” said Pentagon spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Martin Meiners to the VOA Korean Service on Jan. 18.

“The Republic of Korea has a world-class defense industry which regularly sells to allies and partners, including the United States,” Meiners added. South Korea’s official name is the Republic of Korea (ROK).

South Korea’s arms sales

Experts said arms sales from South Korea’s private defense companies to the U.S. could elevate South Korea’s standing as “a global pivotal state,” a stated foreign policy aspiration of President Yoon Suk Yeol since he took office in May.

Yoon said in August that South Korea’s goal is to become one of the top four global arms sellers. He reiterated the goal of boosting weapons sales in November.

South Korea was the world’s eighth-largest exporter of weapons in 2017-21 according to a 2022 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) which said the United States, Russia, France, China and Germany are the top five sellers.

“President Yoon has called South Korea a global pivotal state,” David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said. “… Providing support to Ukraine directly or indirectly is an example of that.”

Putin’s warning

Experts said that by allowing the private arms sales to proceed, South Korea could shore up its alliances with Western powers and help to demonstrate to authoritarian neighbors like China and North Korea that the kind of aggression launched by Russia in Ukraine will not succeed.

But the move will likely come at the cost of further deterioration in Seoul’s relations with Moscow, which are already fraying over South Korea’s support of the sanctions the U.S. imposed on Russia after it invaded Ukraine.

“South Korea has the same interest about peace, stability, territorial sovereignty, protecting [against] states that are invading through outright aggression,” said Terence Roehrig, a professor of national security and Korea expert at the U.S. Naval War College.

“It is about South Korea making the decision that it needs to stand with the West on those issues with some degree of hedging by being reluctant to send direct military assistance to Ukraine,” he added.

“You will not see South Korea directly contributing arms to Ukraine. It will only be about backfilling other states who might be doing that.” That, he said, is because of concerns that Russia could “play a role on North Korea” through potential technology transfers and weapons development.

In October, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned South Korea that sending ammunition to Ukraine would ruin their relations.

“We have learned that the Republic of Korea has made a decision to supply weapons and ammunition to Ukraine. This will destroy our relations,” said Putin as reported by Russian state-owned Tass. “How would the Republic of Korea react if we resumed cooperation with North Korea in that sphere?”

Until it collapsed in 1991, the Soviet Union provided military support to North Korea. The Ukraine war has drawn Russia and North Korea closer together. On Friday, the U.S. released a photo of what it said was evidence of North Korea sending weapons to the Wagner Group, a Russian private military organization, via trains to Russia.

VOA Korea contacted the Russian embassy in Washington and Foreign Ministry in Moscow for comment, but they did not respond.

Andrew Yeo, the SK-Korea Foundation chair at Brookings Institution, said the proposed private weapons sales to the U.S. “would suggest greater support for the Ukrainian cause and further sour relations with Moscow, although Moscow has already placed Seoul on its list of hostile countries.”

In March, Russia placed South Korea on a list of countries that commit “unfriendly actions,” according to Tass. According to the Tass report, countries on the list imposed or joined the sanctions imposed on Russia after it invaded Ukraine.

“Seoul is eager to preserve a workable relationship with Moscow, so in some way drawing down U.S. weapons in [its bases in South] Korea is more palatable than selling them directly,” said Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at Hudson Institute.

“But South Korea also has an abiding interest in ensuring that Russian aggression in Ukraine cannot prevail,” he added. “That would be a bad precedent for South Korea’s neighbors.”

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