Seoul reconsiders arming Ukraine as Russia, North Korea align « Khabarhub
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Seoul reconsiders arming Ukraine as Russia, North Korea align

21 June 2024  

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For more than two years, Western countries have urged South Korea to directly arm Ukraine, insisting that South Korean weapons could play a pivotal role in helping Kyiv fight off Russia’s invasion.

South Korea, a major arms producer, has resisted, concerned that directly arming Ukraine could prompt Russia to expand its military cooperation with North Korea, which seeks help on advanced weapons that target Seoul.

That calculation may be changing. This week, Russia and North Korea announced a mutual defense treaty. Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted the deal could facilitate the provision of more weapons to Pyongyang.

The formalization of North Korea-Russia ties surprised many observers, who had assumed Moscow was mainly pursuing short-term gains with Pyongyang. The move also enraged the government of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.

In a briefing Thursday, South Korean National Security Adviser Chang Ho-jin slammed the Russia-North Korea treaty as a violation of international law and said his government would reconsider its ban on sending lethal weapons to Ukraine.

It is not the first time that Yoon’s conservative government has hinted at a change in its Ukraine policy but its latest threat may be more serious, if comments by South Korean officials are any indication.

According to the conservative Joongang Ilbo, a senior official in South Korea’s presidential office said “we will consider whatever steps Russia would find most painful,” while also noting Seoul is watching to see Russia’s next moves.

Andrii Nikolaeinko, a former diplomat at Ukraine’s embassy in Seoul and now a member of the Ukrainian parliament, told VOA that he believes such statements suggest Seoul is prepared to modify its policy.

“My contact and sources led me to believe that it’s possible and is going to happen soon,” Nikolaeinko said, without providing more details.

“It’s not just only my personal opinion, but also the expectation of Ukrainian officials that this time South Korea will really change its policy on supplying ammunition to Ukraine, probably openly and directly,” he added.

Though South Korea still faces a tricky situation and may proceed cautiously, some observers argue that Seoul’s considerations might be changing in a fundamental way.

“Putin signing a comprehensive strategic partnership with Kim Jong Un suggests that South Korea’s self-restraint in supporting Ukraine buys it little to nothing in Moscow,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Seoul’s Ewha University, said.

A Seoul-based European ambassador told VOA he is waiting to see how the situation will develop. But, the ambassador added, “Now it should be clear that one cannot expect that Russia is capable of playing any constructive role in providing peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”

Major impact

It is not hard to see why Ukraine has pushed for more help from South Korea. It is the world’s ninth-largest arms exporter and has a reputation for quickly supplying affordable and reliable weapons.

South Korea has so far only provided weapons to third parties, such as the United States and Poland, which themselves are directly arming Ukraine.

To defend their approach, South Korean officials often cite domestic laws that strictly regulate or prevent sending arms to war zones, although Yoon has suggested in the past that such barriers could be overcome.

In April of last year Yoon said South Korea could provide more than just humanitarian or financial support if Ukraine comes under a large-scale civilian attack. Since then, Yoon has not clarified what type of incident would meet those standards.

At least in theory, a South Korea decision to arm Ukraine could be a game-changer, more than making up for the munitions that Russia has allegedly received from North Korea, analysts say.

“South Korea’s ability to produce weapons cannot be compared to that of North Korea,” Cho Han-beom, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said.

“North Korea’s weapons help Russia barely sustain the war, but South Korea’s weapons could change the entire landscape of the conflict,” he said.

Ankit Panda, a Washington-based defense analyst who follows the Koreas, agreed to an extent.

“That’s assuming a large volume of deliveries. Hard to say at this stage what the magnitude of ROK deliveries might look like,” Panda, a senior fellow at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said.

Two and a half years into the war, Ukraine is searching for whatever help it can find. Russia controls roughly a fifth of Ukraine, according to independent estimates, and has been gaining ground, as Kyiv struggles to find munitions to push back a Russian offensive.

“Ukraine needs munitions as it can get them. South Korea has quite a few platforms that would be quite valuable for Kyiv,” Panda said, “These capabilities likely won’t be transformative … but will nevertheless offer real benefits.”

How South Koreans feel

South Korea’s domestic politics provide another possible barrier to becoming more involved in the Ukraine war.

Nearly 60% of South Koreans oppose arming Ukraine, according to a poll published in April 2023. There do not appear to be any more recent surveys on the matter, which has not been a subject of intense public debate.

Some left-leaning South Korean lawmakers say it would be foolish to upset the status quo, given there is no public evidence that Putin has yet provided Kim with advanced weapons.

Kim Joon-hyung, a member of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, said it would be “reckless” to intervene in a faraway war and become Russia’s enemy.

If South Korea wants to change its weapons exports policy, it must first get permission from elected lawmakers, Kim told VOA in an interview.

Like some other South Korean foreign policy analysts, Kim questioned whether the Russia-North Korea treaty truly established an alliance, noting that Putin refrained from using that phrase in his public comments following the treaty signing.

In Kim’s view, Yoon should take a more cautious response to the region.

“If you want peace, the president must abandon his false belief that you should prepare for war…if you want peace, prepare for peace,” he said.

Many South Korean analysts disagree, saying Yoon should draw an even harder line to deter Russia from arming the North.

“For example, if Russia transfers core military technology and weapons systems to North Korea, we [would] start providing precision strike weapons to Ukraine,” Park Won-gon, a North Korea specialist at Ewha University, said.

“This treaty is a very serious problem,” said Park. “There are plenty of examples historically, in terms of how we should handle Russia. We have no choice but to go strong.”


Publish Date : 21 June 2024 17:22 PM

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