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KEI Spotlight

[Op-Ed] How South Korea can aid Ukraine

April 10, 2024

This article was published in The Korea Times on April 10, 2024.

In March, Russia vetoed a routine resolution to extend the mandate of the U.N. Panel of Experts. Moscow’s decision to end the primary U.N. body responsible for investigating U.N. sanctions violations should erase any doubt about Russia’s willingness to violate sanctions to aid its war effort in Ukraine. It should also end any belief that Moscow is a partner for peace and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

Since the Kim-Putin summit in September 2023, North Korea has shipped over 6,700 weapons containers to Russia in violation of U.N. sanctions. According to South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, these containers could hold approximately 3 million rounds of 152mm artillery shells or 500,000 rounds of 122mm multiple rocket launchers. North Korean ballistic missiles have also been found on the battlefield in Ukraine.

Estimates suggest that Russia is firing five times as many artillery rounds as Ukraine, with North Korean supplies a significant contributor to Russia’s advantage. NATO estimates that Russia is producing 250,000 artillery rounds a month, or around 3 million a year. In less than six months, North Korea doubled what Russia can produce in a single year. Without North Korean support, Russia’s battlefield advantage would be closer to 2.5 times that of Ukraine.

North Korea is supplying munitions to Russia with the clear calculation that it will in turn benefit from Russian sanctions violations. Reports suggest that Russia has provided technical assistance for North Korea’s satellite launch, is helping Pyongyang evade financial sanctions and is allowing North Korean ships to load petroleum directly at Russian ports. This is likely only the beginning of Russian support for North Korea.

While North Korea is playing a critical role for Russia, South Korea has taken steps to aid Ukraine. Last year, Seoul indirectly provided between 300,000 to 500,000 155mm artillery rounds to Ukraine. However, with the war at a critical stage with Ukraine facing artillery shortages, it is important to find creative solutions for providing Ukraine with additional artillery rounds.

One U.S. think tank has suggested South Korea provide 105mm howitzer shells. South Korea currently has more than 3.4 million 105mm shells in stock. Since less than a third of South Korean howitzers fire the 105mm shell, this would have little impact on South Korea’s own defense needs.

There are other steps Seoul can take. South Korea recently announced the development of a new extended-range 155mm artillery shell. While production estimates for this year are only 2,000 shells, transferring some of those shells to Ukraine could provide benefits to South Korea. For example, sending a limited supply of extended 155mm artillery to Ukraine would allow South Korea to test the weapon in real-world conditions and potentially help spur orders from other countries.

Ukraine is working to strengthen its own domestic arms industry to provide supplies separate from international aid. However, it is having difficulty licensing the rights and importing the raw materials needed for domestic production of 155mm artillery. By licensing Ukraine the rights to produce 155mm artillery shells and providing raw materials, South Korea could help Ukraine produce its own artillery rounds.

A related option would be the establishment of South Korean joint defense industry ventures in Ukraine. French, Turkish and other defense firms are working to build facilities in Ukraine. The establishment of South Korean production in Ukraine would allow Seoul to implement a policy of “lend and replace.” South Korea would lend existing artillery rounds to Ukraine on the understanding that after the war they would be replaced by any Ukrainian domestic production from South Korean or other Ukrainian defense contractors.

Lastly, South Korea could contribute through NATO itself. NATO is developing a five-year, $100 billion military support package for Ukraine. As one of four Indo-Pacific countries that now regularly attend NATO’s annual meetings, Korea could take the lead in developing an additional support package among willing Indo-Pacific countries through the Ukraine Defense Contact Group.

Some might argue that Ukraine isn’t South Korea’s concern, but the war has a direct impact on South Korean security. Early assumptions about Russia’s relationship with North Korea have proven incorrect. Most experts suggested that North Korea would only supply Russia with old munitions that it no longer needed. Recovered ballistic missiles, however, include Western parts produced within the last three years. Newly produced North Korean equipment is heading to Russia and Kim Jong-un has encouraged arms producers to increase production. There are fewer limits than initially believed on what North Korea is willing to provide Russia and how long it can sustain those supplies.

While Russia is unlikely to provide North Korea with its most advanced technology, we should not assume that Moscow will not provide Pyongyang with technology that would materially weaken South Korea’s own national security. Aiding Ukraine would not directly stop Russia providing new technology to North Korea, but it would deepen South Korea’s ties with NATO, help a fellow democracy, mitigate long-term Russia-North Korea ties and lessen the chances of China taking similar action against Taiwan. These outcomes would directly strengthen South Korea’s security.