International

South Korea’s Ability to Arm Ukraine Elevates Its Role at NATO Summit

A welder works on a K9 Howitzer at Hanwha Aerospace’s manufacturing facility in Changwon, South Korea. (Woohae Cho/Photographer: Woohae Cho/Bloombe)

(Bloomberg) -- One of the most influential people attending the NATO summit leads a country that is not a member. Yet it holds vast stores of weapons sought by the bloc to help Ukraine fight off Russia, and perhaps tip the battle in Kyiv’s favor.

Ukraine needs artillery shells. South Korea has millions and there is a push to convince its President Yoon Suk Yeol to change a government policy that prohibits Seoul from sending lethal aid to countries at war. 

Yoon is attending the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit this week for the third time but this visit is different. Just weeks before it opened, his government said a defense pact signed between Russia and North Korea in June has made it consider whether it’s time to start sending weapons to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s forces.

Zelenskiy, who has been seeking weapons from South Korea since Russia’s full-scale invasion started in 2022, will be attending the summit in Washington aimed at proving that NATO is as strong as ever in its 75th year. He is expected to speak at a meeting of the Indo-Pacific Four partners — Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea — the Yomiuri newspaper reported, where he could again lay out his case for weapons. 

“The types of weapons South Korea can provide Ukraine are the ones that can make breakthroughs in the current stalemate on the front lines,” said Park Won Gon, a professor at South Korea’s Ewha Womans University, specializing in international relations. 

Apart from the appeals from Zelenskiy, leaked intelligence obtained by the New York Times last year indicates Washington has been seeking to have Yoon send artillery to help Ukraine. Yoon’s aides were worried about pressure from US President Joe Biden, a document showed, and the Yoon government has denied the claims. 

Congress finally approved $61 billion in funding in April, helping shift the balance of firepower, but the US and its European partners still need to ramp up their ability to make artillery shells. 

The European Union missed a pledge to provide Ukraine with 1 million rounds of artillery by end-March and any munitions from South Korea could help fill shortfalls. Ukraine is estimated to need at least 200,000 rounds a month.  

An unnamed senior NATO official said anything that South Korea provides to help Ukraine defend itself would be welcome, Yonhap News agency reported. 

South Korea has 155 millimeter artillery shells that are the NATO standard used by Ukraine. The stock is estimated to be at over 3 million shells, Yonhap reported. 

Seoul may be less worried now about drawing down its inventory after seeing North Korea sending to Russia what Yoon’s government believes could be nearly 5 million shells. These arms transfers translated into Kyiv’s troops being outgunned by as much as 10-1 by President Vladimir Putin’s forces as military aid to Ukraine was delayed in the US Congress this year. 

South Korea could also consider sending 105 mm artillery shells, which have less range but are fired from howitzers that are lighter and more mobile, the Center for Strategic & International Studies said in a report in March. South Korea has as many as 3.4 million shells that can be used by Ukraine, it said.

Meanwhile, countries bordering Russia have been buying weapons from the likes of South Korea’s leading defense contractor Hanwha Aerospace Co. Its tanks and howitzers are seen as less expensive than those from US makers and able to defeat Russian systems. The company signed a deal worth nearly $1 billion to sell 54 K9 howitzers and other military supplies to Romania, South Korea’s arms procurement agency said Wednesday.

Yoon has said any decision on sending weapons would depend on Russia’s action. Lawmaker Kim Gunn, who served under Yoon as a chief nuclear envoy until February, said the threat to supply arms to Ukraine is leverage to deter Russia from providing military support to North Korea. 

Officials in Seoul have indicated a red line would be material, particularly technology that enhances Kim’s ability to make weapons of mass destruction. Putin has said he can’t exclude providing Kim with high-precision weapons in response to Western military assistance for Ukraine.

“From Seoul’s point of view, Russia’s cooperation with North Korea is a direct threat to its national security,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a senior fellow with the 38 North Program at the Stimson Center. She said it not only aids in advancing North Korea’s weapons development but helps Pyongyang “manage and even improve its national economy by reviving the munitions industry.”

Lee, who worked as an analyst for the CIA’s Open Source Enterprise, said South Korea has been able to deflect pressure by promoting other ways to contribute to NATO, such cyber security, and Seoul should move cautiously. 

“Direct provision of weapons to Ukraine is a major step, and that decision should be made based on South Korea’s national interest, which should also take into consideration its longer-term interest vis-a-vis Russia,” she said.

(Updates with Hanwha Aerospace’s latest deal with Romania in paragraph 13.)

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

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