South Korea may endure to Western pressure and send weapons to Ukraine, while as a result of such actions, Russia could respond to any South Korean provocation by boosting ties with North Korea. Writes Ahmed Adel
A South Korean supply of weapons to Ukraine could lead to Russia and China increasing their cooperation with North Korea. It is for this reason that Seoul is in no hurry to make a decision to support Ukraine, even if Washington and NATO continue to pile on pressure.
In February, it was reported that the US asked to purchase more artillery ammunition from South Korea. According to government sources cited by JoongAng Ilbo, Washington requested Seoul for artillery ammunition and is currently deliberating the matter.
It is recalled that the US bought 100,000 rounds of 155-millimetre howitzer artillery shells from South Korea to send to Ukraine in November. South Korea’s Defence Ministry said at the time that the ammunition purchase was with “the premise that the United States is the end user” so that they could replenish their depleted stockpiles.
The US wants South Korea to maintain distance from Russia and China. However, Russia and China are South Korea’s neighbours, not an ocean length away like continental USA. This obviously factors into Seoul’s strategic thinking and will impact its decision on whether to support Ukraine, particularly as both countries could use any provocation as a pretext to boost cooperation with North Korea.
Although it might seemingly appear that Beijing has little interest in South Korea’s position relating to a far-off conflict, Seoul’s decision will signal just how easily it will capitulate to US interests. China and Russia will certainly be observing how Seoul responds to pressure from the US and from there make a decision on whether to boost their ties with North Korea
Regarding the latest US request, a South Korean official, in speaking with JoongAng Ilbo, said: “there is no change to our stance of not supplying lethal military aid to Ukraine.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he hopes for South Korean military support when responding to a question from a JTBC reporter at a press conference in Kiev on February 24, the one-year anniversary of the Russian military operation.
“We view weapons supplies to us positively,” Zelensky said, adding that he hopes South Korea “will find an opportunity to help Ukraine.”
It is recalled that Zelensky addressed South Korea’s National Assembly via video livestream in April 2022 and begged for anti-aircraft weapons. There was an evident lack of interest in Zelensky’s speech as only about 60 of the 299 sitting lawmakers were present during the address.
With South Korean lawmakers evidently not interested in sending weapons to Ukraine, a position that has been maintained by the government, pressure has been sustained by the US so that this policy can change.
Adding to this squeeze, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on South Korea to “step up” its military support to Ukraine during his January visit to the Asian country. There, Stoltenberg had the audacity to cite the example of several NATO member states that have revised their policies against exporting weapons to Ukraine. Stoltenberg evidently forgot that South Korea is not a NATO member, or perhaps even the very fact that South Korea is a Pacific country, and not an Atlantic one.
For now, Seoul’s support to Ukraine is not what NATO and the US are expecting. South Korea has only provided humanitarian aid, which, while helpful for citizens, does nothing to alleviate Ukraine’s lack of weapons and ammunition.
President Yoon Suk Yeol has set out to make South Korea a “global pivotal state,” and it is for this reason that the West is piling pressure on South Korea to make a firm stance on the Russia-Ukraine war. Due to South Korea’s rapid economic development and ambitions to grow its prominence on the international stage, the West wants Seoul to make more substantial contributions to global issues, but obviously in accordance to Western interests.
Although there is a likelihood that South Korea’s leaders would like to conform to Western demands, reality dictates that it must consider the consequences its actions can have, particularly in relation to North Korea, China, and Russia. It cannot be overlooked that all three countries are armed with nuclear weapons, with the North Korean nuclear issue being the overriding concern, at least from Seoul’s perspective.
This suggests that although South Korea wants to be a “global pivotal state” and “step up” as a foreign policy actor, as Yoon said, it will be difficult to achieve so long as most of its attention and resources are dedicated to the unresolved war in Korea. Given that the Korean War has not reached a peaceful resolution as only an Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953, South Korea must seriously consider how its actions against Russia could lead to closer ties between Moscow and Pyongyang, and how it could be perceived by China.
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