In early December, the Russian-language Internet was abuzz with the Washington Post (WP), which published a story on 4 December stating that indirect supplies of South Korean 155 mm artillery shells to Ukraine had made it a larger supplier of ammunition to Kyiv than all European countries combined.
It has been claimed that Washington’s own production capacity for this type of ammunition is just over 1/10 of Ukraine’s demand, which reaches over 90,000 shells per month. In this connection, the US President’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan drew attention to South Korea, which has a significant stockpile of them. Although “South Korean law prohibits supplying weapons to combat zones, U.S. officials have tried to persuade Seoul to provide ammunition, estimating that about 330,000 155mm shells could be delivered by air and sea from Korea within 41 days.” At the same time, a scheme to “borrow” shells was devised to circumvent the ROK’s legal prohibition on supplying weapons to the war zone.
The newspaper reported that “senior administration officials spoke with colleagues in Seoul who were receptive while the provision was indirect, and “the shells (the exact quantity was not specified) began arriving at the beginning of the year. However, it was never clear from the text whether this was a secret direct supply between Seoul and Kiev or an alternate version, when Seoul supplies shells to Washington, and the latter transfers to Kiev either South Korean ammunition or shells from its own reserves, which were replenished at the expense of the ROK.
Nevertheless, the material soon disappeared from the site, and the author’s attempts to find it was unsuccessful. This only fuelled the excitement: did they say something and remove it? Was the text taken down for incorrect wording and references to anonymous sources?
The day after the article was published, “the Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Korea said that the country’s position on not providing lethal weapons to countries at war remains unchanged despite the US media report”. And the conservative but opposition Yoon Seok-yol’s Korea Times newspaper published a commentary “South Korea’s indirect arms supplies to Ukraine will hinder the restoration of bilateral relations,” claiming that even indirect arms supplies would hinder relations between Seoul and Moscow.
The confirmation of suspicions about Seoul providing indirect military assistance to Kiev in its conflict with Moscow caused quite a “storm in the comments” of Runet. For many military experts and international experts of the Russian Federation, there is no direct difference between direct and indirect deliveries, as well as between whether South Korean weapons are sent to Ukraine with Seoul’s knowledge or not.
According to Artyom Lukin, deputy director of the School of Regional and International Studies at the Far Eastern Federal University, for example, “despite Seoul’s claims that it is only providing non-lethal aid to Ukraine, it is no secret that South Korean artillery shells officially sent to fill U.S. weapons depots are highly likely to eventually lead to the deaths of Russian soldiers on the Ukrainian fronts“.
For the author, there is such a difference. And he calls for avoiding double standards of propaganda. Just as, in his opinion, it will be possible to talk about North Korean weapons on the Russian side only when they are revealed to the world in the form of artefacts found in the area of a special military operation with an exact indication of the country of manufacture, the same standard should be applied to South Korean weapons and ammunition. For, from the author’s point of view, Seoul is in no hurry to run ahead of the locomotive, and such throw-ins are part of a rather simple combination. It is assumed that Moscow will believe this data and apply sanctions against Seoul, after which the ROK leadership will finally feel that it has the right to change its policy on the arms issue.
However, this is a good opportunity for us to remember what Seoul supplied, how and where, and what conversations there were about it. The authors of the East Sentinel TG channel have made some selections on this issue.
- In mid-2022, the Republic of Korea provided Kyiv with ammunition and provisions worth 77,000 United States dollars: body armour, helmets, gas masks, medicines, ready-to-eat foodstuffs, etc., which were originally to be delivered to the Afghan military.
- As of December 2022, the Republic of Korea has donated $100 million to organise humanitarian aid to Ukraine. In 2023, the amount will be150 million dollars
- As of July 2023, Seoul has sent non-lethal equipment (including portable mine detectors and explosion-proof suits) totalling $3.7 million four times.
- In 2022 and 2023, Seoul “returned” to Washington 550,000 (first fifty, then five hundred) 155mm artillery shells originally manufactured by the States and delivered to the Republic of Korea in 1974-1978 as WRSA-K (Military Reserve for Allied-Korea). Since Republic law prohibits the sale or transfer of lethal weapons to Ukraine, the shells went into US warehouses while Washington supplied them to Kiev from its own stockpiles. These numbers are sometimes mixed up with deliveries from the US army’s own warehouses in Korea, which also took place.
The said shipment of shells was sent in March 2023 and two months later the US media claimed that it had gone to Kiev. On 24 May, the US Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported virtually the same thing that WP is reporting today: the ROK, with US mediation, is supplying Ukraine with hundreds of thousands of 155 mm shells. According to a secret agreement, Seoul transfers the shells to the American side, and the latter ensures their transfer to Ukraine. “The ROK authorities, which had previously taken a more restrained and cautious stance on the issue, have nevertheless yielded to powerful political pressure from Washington, which is running out of ammunition.”
The US Defence Ministry confirmed the fact of negotiations with the Koreans on the purchase of shells (without specifying), but Seoul denied these statements, stressing that it continues to adhere to the position that the ROK does not supply Ukraine with military aid either directly or through third countries. To what extent the USA is listed in the relevant documents as an end consumer, however, has not been clarified.
On the other hand, Cho Tae-yong, adviser to the ROK president on foreign policy and security issues, did not rule out that the position could be revised and the ROK would agree to transfer weapons and equipment to Kiev, but so far this time has not come. It should be recalled that in April 2022, President Yun allowed such a thing in case the ROK Armed Forces committed violations of the laws of war or mass war crimes.
In June 2023, the author of a serious throw-in was the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, who said that on the margins of the Shangri-La dialogue he and ROK Defense Minister Lee Jong-seop discussed Ukraine’s ammunition needs. “Good meeting with Korean Defence Minister Lee Jong Sop at #SLD23. Shared concerns about ongoing DPRK provocations and discussed Ukraine’s ammunition needs,” he tweeted.
According to media speculation, the European persuaded the Korean minister to start direct supplies of ammunition to Ukraine, pointing out that Kiev is experiencing a notable shortage of them on the battlefield. However, the ROK Defence Ministry dismissed his claims as untrue, pointing out that the EU side expressed its unilateral stance on the importance of ammunition supplies, but support for Ukraine was not an official agenda item.
On June 1, the alleged supply of South Korean ammunition to Ukraine became a bone of contention in the ROK National Assembly when, during a meeting of the parliamentary Defence Committee, the opposition, led by Chairman Lee Jae-myung, called on the government to clearly articulate and state its position on the issue, including the possibility of providing indirect support to Kiev with Washington’s mediation, as well as to disclose Seoul’s current stockpile of ammunition, referring to Deputy Defence Minister Shin Bom-cheol’s reference to the fact that Seoul’s ammunition stockpile is currently in stock.
Incidentally, just in June, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said directly that, despite its low intensity, the Ukrainian conflict has seriously depleted NATO countries’ stockpiles of weapons and ammunition. And this is perceived as a serious problem, since no one wants to make up for this shortfall by turning the economy into a military economy.
On 17 July, against the backdrop of Yoon Seok-yeol’s visit to Ukraine, ROK First Deputy Foreign Minister Jang Ho-jin reiterated that Seoul’s position on not providing Kiev with lethal military products remains unchanged.
According to the diplomat, such a move could significantly destabilise South Korea’s relations with Russia, as Moscow takes this issue very seriously. The deputy foreign minister also added that both sides – the ROK and Russia – understand that it is undesirable to bring bilateral relations to a crisis, and therefore both sides are doing their best to prevent it. A representative of the Defence Ministry made a similar statement on the same day, noting that the details of the ROK’s military assistance to Ukraine would be clarified later in the course of subsequent consultations.
And since August, against the backdrop of an unsuccessful “counteroffensive by the AFU,” there has been talk of supplying North Korean shells to the Russian Federation, but this is a slightly different story, which we note here only as another way of putting pressure on Seoul.
In September 2023, against the background of the DPRK leader’s visit to Russia and news about possible military-technical cooperation between Russia and the DPRK, representatives of the Ministry of Defence and the Presidential Administration of the ROK again stated that the South Korean policy has not changed yet. The authorities intend to monitor the development of the situation and then act according to the situation.
Just at that time, rumours began to circulate about possible deliveries to Ukraine of two K-600 Rhino armoured engineer demolition vehicles based on the K1A1 tank. These vehicles would be used to clear mines (including magnetic mines), cut passages in minefields and ensure the safe movement of vehicles.
Of course, the delivery of two sapper tanks is exactly a demonstrative gesture for Kim Jong-un’s visit, but experts are wary, because an engineering vehicle is not the same as an engineering vehicle. Thus, the author would be more worried if the Nashorn had a remote detonation system, which is similar to Russia’s Zmei Gorynich. The rocket charge pulls the explosive hose to be detonated behind it, causing mines and other explosives to detonate on either side of the explosion. This creates a passage in the mine barrier. However, during the second Chechen war, the system was used not only to create a passage in minefields, but also for fighting in urban areas, when not only mines were detonated, but also explosives at the disposal of the militants, and the shock wave from an explosion of such power was an effective way of concussion. However, judging by the presentation of the K-600, this firing system is not there.
However, the Nashorn has a machine gun and the AFU will be left to use this heavily armoured vehicle as a means of supporting infantry when overcoming minefields. Then, Ukrainian craftsmen may well put an AGS or something more powerful instead of a machine gun.
At a briefing on 18 September, ROK Ministry of Defence spokesman Jeong Ha-gyu avoided a direct answer to a question about possible deliveries of Rhinos to Ukraine, saying that he “considers it inappropriate to confirm this.” On the other hand, he added that this equipment does not belong to lethal military means, but to demining equipment and special equipment.
When the official was asked what to do with the machine gun with which the K-600 is equipped, whether it is removed or left, he, according to O. Kiryanov, went into a lengthy discussion on the complexity of the differences between lethal and non-lethal, offensive and defensive weapons.
In September 2023, citing a number of high-ranking ROK government officials, it was again reported that the 500,000 shells that Seoul “lent” to Washington were likely to have gone to Ukraine, because the agreement did not specify the end user of the ammunition. It is problematic to confirm this unequivocally, as the document is classified.
In November, the Wall Street Journal repeated the news from six months ago – “hundreds of thousands of South Korean artillery shells are on their way to Ukraine via the United States after Seoul’s initial resistance to arming Ukraine” – and one wants to ask whether the news was true then, now or never? Very reminiscent of the news from this publication or WP about Pyongyang supplying Moscow with another million shells.
Finally, the Korea Times wrote that “There are reports that Ukrainian troops are using 155mm artillery shells and howitzers from Korea on the battlefield. They were most likely provided by Poland, which has become a major arms market for Seoul.” Well, experts perceive Poland as a transshipment hub, believing that what is supplied to Warsaw will actually be supplied to Kiev. However, more and more often there is information that the opposite is true – Poland refuses to supply its weapons to Ukraine and wants to accumulate its own military potential, actively rearming its army at the expense of Seoul. For example, on 20 September 2023, then Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki explicitly stated that Warsaw had refused to supply weapons to Kiev and was instead engaged in equipping its own armed forces .
Moreover, after the opposition won more votes in the Sejm than the ruling party in the 15 October 2023 parliamentary elections, the new Sejm Marshal Szymon Golownia said that the agreement on military supplies signed by the government could be invalidated as an excessive waste of public money. And after Mateusz Morawiecki’s government failed to get a vote of confidence in the Sejm and Donald Tusk became the new prime minister, the issue of Polish aid to Ukraine is a moot point.
And the last news of 12 December 2023: the Minister of Unification of the Republic of Korea Kim Young-ho said that the situation on the Korean peninsula will not affect Seoul’s position in the conflict in Ukraine, which is to refuse to supply lethal weapons to Kiev. “At the moment, the government of the Republic of Korea is providing humanitarian aid and has no plans to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine.”
Thus, for now, it is easier to consider that either the article was taken down due to incorrect wording with references to unknown sources, or another attempt to push Seoul into more active actions has failed. This pleases the author, although his long-term outlook remains pessimistic. Although Seoul is well aware of all the risks of deteriorating relations with Moscow, Washington’s pressure will slowly but surely increase, and the possibility of provocations cannot be ruled out.
Konstantin ASMOLOV, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.
 Lukin, Artyom . Could Russia Provide An End To North Korea’s Strategic Solitude? – Analysis// Eurasia Review, November 8, 2023