Nato chief calls on South Korea to provide military aid to Ukraine
The Nato secretary-general has called on South Korea to supply military assistance to Ukraine, stressing Kyiv’s “urgent need” for more ammunition.
Speaking in Seoul on Monday, Jens Stoltenberg thanked the conservative government of South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol for providing non-lethal aid to Ukraine but urged it to do more.
South Korea has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but has declined to provide lethal assistance to Kyiv, citing a longstanding policy of not giving weapons to countries involved in an active conflict.
“I urge the Republic of Korea to continue and to step up on the specific issue of military support,” Stoltenberg said at the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies in Seoul.
“At the end of the day, it’s a decision for you to make, but I’ll say that several Nato allies who have had as a policy to never export weapons to countries in a conflict have changed that policy now,” he added.
South Korea has joined sanctions against Moscow that were drawn up by western countries and Japan in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion last year. In March, Russia designated South Korea as an “unfriendly country”.
But western officials have expressed frustration in private with what they perceive as South Korean foot-dragging on efforts to isolate Moscow. Seoul has not joined a western-led price cap on purchases of Russian oil and has not made any commitment to phase out use of Russian hydrocarbons.
Since the invasion, South Korean defence companies have sealed a series of bumper arms export deals with Nato member Poland worth more than $12bn. Seoul’s willingness to sell tanks, howitzers, light attack aircraft, ammunition and multiple rocket launchers to Warsaw has raised hopes that it could be moving towards providing lethal aid to Kyiv.
But a western military official told the Financial Times that arms sales to Nato countries should not be conflated with a willingness to offer military support to Ukraine. “That was a defence export deal, not a political statement,” said the official.
Western countries have set up an International Fund for Ukraine to supply military equipment and other support to Kyiv. The fund is designed to allow states to back the Ukrainian war effort without directly supplying arms, but South Korea has not made a contribution.
“Ideally we want countries to donate, not to sell,” the western military official said. “Anyone can sell things. The question is how much you are willing to contribute.”
The official confirmed that Nato countries were most keen to secure donations of artillery ammunition and air defence munitions, citing the compatibility of South Korean-produced ammunition with equipment already given by Nato members.
Stoltenberg is visiting South Korea and Japan this week as the transatlantic defence alliance seeks to forge closer ties with Asian democracies. The leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand attended the Nato summit last year in Madrid, where they agreed to co-operate on cyber defence and maritime security.
Yang Uk, a defence specialist at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, said the South Korean government’s reluctance may also be related to its anxiety about Russia deepening military links with North Korea.
Last month, the US accused North Korea of arming the Kremlin-linked private military company Wagner Group, which has deployed mercenaries in Ukraine.
“The US is trying to tell South Korea that this is already happening, that Russia and North Korea are already military allies,” said Yang.
“For the time being, the North Korean military support appears to be small-scale and only in one direction,” he added. “But if evidence emerges that Russia is already sending military support to North Korea, then South Korea’s policy might change.”