The factor of North and South Korea in the Russian-Ukrainian war

How the Russian factor affects the supply of arms to Ukraine?

Moscow is getting closer to Pyongyang but also holding back Seoul

North and South Korea are expectedly and obviously on different sides of history in the focus of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

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Two from the same trench

Pyongyang has openly sided with Russia, recognizing the “independence” of the so-called LPR/DPR, and has become noticeably closer to it. And in response to the decision of Western countries to provide Ukraine with tanks and other types of heavy weapons, Kim Jong-un’s influential sister promised that they “will stand in the same trench with the army and people of Russia.” And although this statement has a deep propaganda coloration, in addition to diplomatic support, military cooperation could be another area of cooperation between the two countries: North Korea has weapons stockpiles that Russia needs, and it needs financial revenues for its economy, which has been weakened by tough sanctions and two years of self-isolation.

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US intelligence has repeatedly noted the likelihood of North Korea supplying weapons to Russia, including artillery and missiles. John Kirby, Strategic Communications Coordinator at the US National Security Council, said that North Korea is trying to hide the traces of the supply through the Middle East and North Africa. So far, there is no direct confirmation of the transfer of weapons to the Wagner PMC (private military company) and the Russian military, and Pyongyang itself categorically denies this information. However, the country has a long history of selling weapons in circumvention of sanctions and a comprehensive arms embargo imposed by the UN Security Council, and the marked intensification of Russian-DPRK cooperation during the war gives reason to take this information seriously.

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Unlike the purchase of weapons, the Russian side began talking about its intention to involve Koreans in the reconstruction of the illegally occupied Ukrainian territories as early as the summer. Earlier this month, the Daily NK, citing its sources, reported on the selection of the first group of workers from the military and public security forces – approximately from 300 to 500 people who are to be sent to the occupied territories. According to the publication, the main agreement between the DPRK and the Russian Federation excludes the participation of selected personnel in the military conflict, and the sending of workers is delayed by the worsening situation at the front.

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However, as soon as the first North Korean citizens set foot in the occupied territories of Ukraine, this information will be difficult to conceal from both Ukraine and its partners. In any case, this would be a violation of the UN Security Council resolution adopted in 2017, which banned the use of North Korean labor. However, Russia can shift the legal part of this cooperation to the self-proclaimed LPR/DPR with which the DPRK has established diplomatic relations, and traditionally veto consideration of this issue in the UN and the imposition of additional sanctions.

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Overall, the current situation has brought North Korea a lot of trump cards. By giving Russia diplomatic curtsies, it has not only the support of the UN Security Council but also an ally in circumventing sanctions restrictions: now Russia itself is not averse to using the experience of the experienced DPRK and Iran. In addition, the deterioration of Russian-American and Chinese-American relations strengthens the position of Kim’s regime: The PRC and Russia turn a blind eye to its provocations (last year, the country carried out a record number of missile launches, including intercontinental missiles), and the example of Russian nuclear blackmail negates any arguments of the international community in trying to convince Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons.

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Weapons of limited destinations

In contrast to the North, South Korea stands shoulder to shoulder with those states that support Ukraine. In the first days of Russian aggression, the country joined Western sanctions against Russia and export controls on strategic goods, which put it on the list of “unfriendly countries” of the Russian Federation, and provided Ukraine with various types of assistance worth $100 million.
However, as Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba admitted in a recent interview with the BBC: “South Korea, out of all the Western countries, turned out to be the most difficult case. But we are extremely positive, and Korea’s role is becoming more constructive.”

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The fact is that South Korea is currently one of the largest arms exporters in the world. The Russian-Ukrainian war has drawn even more attention to Korean arms manufacturers. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, last year the country significantly increased its export contracts to $17 billion (which was its record, compared to $7 billion in 2021) due to the unprecedented sale of Korean military equipment to Poland, as well as important contracts with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Australia. South Korean manufacturers have a wide range of high-quality military products, good warranties and after-sales service, and do not impose conditions or restrictions on the use of their products. At the same time, Seoul does not agree to sell weapons to Ukraine…

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South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has repeatedly emphasized that Korean laws and domestic public opinion make it difficult to sell weapons to Kyiv. The official reason for the refusal is the law on foreign trade of the Republic of Korea, which states that the export of goods from the country can only be used for “peaceful purposes” and “should not affect international peace, security maintenance, and national security.” To be fair, such restrictions did not prevent the Republic of Korea from exporting weapons to Saudi Arabia, which is involved in the military conflict in Yemen.

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The president must amend the law to send weapons to Ukraine, but the Democratic Party, which is in opposition to the president and is in favor of maintaining good relations with Russia, controls the majority in the country’s parliament. Therefore, there is considerable debate in the South Korean political camp about how the government should behave so that its position is not perceived as anti-Russian.
The fear of angering Moscow is related to two aspects: first, it is a desire to avoid further rapprochement with the DPRK (which has actually happened) and the transfer of advanced Russian military technologies to Pyongyang; second, Seoul still believes in Moscow’s role in strengthening stability on the Korean Peninsula (which is very doubtful). Although, in fact, today the United States is Seoul’s main security guarantor, and the US-Korean alliance is the key to stability.

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This political split is causing many contradictions in South Korea’s behavior. During President Zelenskyy’s address to the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea in April 2022, leftist forces organized a debate on the Russian-Ukrainian war, during which some venerable Korean professors repeated Russian propaganda narratives. Zelenskyy’s speech took place in front of a noticeably empty hall, with only 60 out of 300 MPs listening to him, the rest preferring to engage in dubious debate. Even the speaker of the National Assembly, Park Byeong-seug, was absent. He watched the speech separately from his office, although his presence in the hall would have been a sign of support, especially for the Ukrainian people.

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It is true that Korean society is mostly on the side of Ukrainians, as the memories of the bloody war of 1950-1953 are still alive in the memory of Koreans. But the problem is different. The events in Ukraine have a humanitarian aspect, which Koreans are ready to empathize with, as well as a geographical and economic one. Geographically, Ukraine is far away; economically, South Korea is facing rising inflation, and rising energy costs, which have already led to three domestic electricity price increases in 2022, and an additional, record-breaking 9.5% increase from January 1 this year, as well as the second trade deficit this century. That is why Korean companies are in no hurry to sever relations with Russia in those sensitive areas that the Republic of Korea is afraid of losing (such as cooperation in the fishing industry, the supply of bituminous coal, which is important in the construction industry, wood, etc.) This is another factor that plays on Moscow’s side.

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Between hammer and anvil

Russia has refrained from imposing restrictions on the Republic of Korea in response to the country’s support for US and European sanctions, but during a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in October, Putin threatened South Korea with deteriorating relations if it supplied Ukraine with weapons.

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President Yoon Suk-yeol responded by emphasizing that Seoul had not yet sent weapons to Ukraine, but that, in fact, it was South Korea’s sovereign right to supply weapons.

Although President Yoon found himself in a difficult situation, under pressure from the United States and its allies, he expressed openness to more military deals with the Americans and to replenish the stockpiles of allies who are helping Ukraine.

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In early November, the Wall Street Journal reported that the United States was preparing to purchase 100,000 155-millimeter artillery shells from South Korea. However, Seoul emphasized that the US was purchasing the weapons and would be their end user, thus absolving itself of responsibility for their subsequent transfer to Kyiv. On the other hand, contracts with Poland for the supply of tanks, aircraft, howitzers, and multiple-launch rocket systems obviously provide that some of these weapons will end up in Ukraine. Also, according to our sources, there are plans to transfer surplus weapons from South Korea through other countries. So far, South Korean supplies to Ukraine have included only non-lethal weapons, such as helmets, body armor, gas masks, blankets, etc.

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Today, the supply of arms to South Korea has a deep political overtone, so it will be implemented with the participation and special assistance of the United States, NATO (Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently visited Seoul on this mission), and other partners in the Ramstein format (Ukraine Defense Contact Group). Seoul’s actions are linked not only to Russia but also to the DPRK and China. The latter see assistance to Ukraine as part of South Korea’s intensified cooperation with the United States and NATO, which creates additional tension in relations with them, which South Korea is trying to avoid. This constraint significantly restrains the Korean authorities from taking steps that would allow them to play a more active role in solving global international problems, and also causes misunderstanding on the part of partners. However, it is important that even in such circumstances, when the door is still closed, a way out through the window has been found, and this is a step forward.

Originally posted by, translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

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