The Yoon administration is prioritizing South Korea’s world-class defence production capabilities as a cornerstone of the nation’s economy, with the goal of positioning Seoul as the fourth-largest global arms exporter. While this endeavour has successfully attracted European customers, it has also drawn attention to some restrictions on Seoul’s arms sales.
On the one hand, Seoul’s Western partners are urging the Yoon administration to play a more active role in arming Ukraine against Russia’s invasion. Conversely, Russia has threatened South Korea should it decide to get involved. This situation presents Seoul with a crucial decision, though it may not be as complex as it initially appears.
South Korea, confronted with a more acute external security threat than most in the Indo-Pacific, finds itself in a precarious, half-century-long state of war with North Korea under an occasionally shaky armistice. As a treaty ally of the US, Seoul is understandably cautious in pursuing policies that could exacerbate tensions with both Beijing and Moscow simultaneously.
As public opinion of China reaches an all-time low, Seoul remains hopeful for a net positive relationship with Russia, with which it has enjoyed generally cordial relations since the fall of the Soviet Union. Although Russia ranked as only the tenth-largest trading partner for South Korea before the invasion, it constitutes a significant market that Seoul would be loath to lose access to entirely.
Further, South Korea is keen to secure Russian support for long-term inter-Korean matters, such as denuclearization and, potentially, unification.
Seoul has agreed to implement EU and US financial sanctions and export control measures against Moscow, yet it has refrained from adopting sanctions on Russian energy exports while simultaneously working to reduce its dependence on Russian energy.
This strategy has enabled Korea to avoid Moscow’s crosshairs and appease its Western partners to a certain extent.
Nonetheless, South Korea’s defence market has the potential to provoke tensions with both factions. During NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s visit to Asia in Jan. 2023, he publicly encouraged President Yoon Suk-yeol to take a more proactive role in supporting the Ukrainian war effort, despite South Korea’s policy prohibiting the provision of lethal aid to states engaged in conflict.
A 2022 order from Washington for 100,000 rounds of artillery ammunition, presumed to be intended for transfer to Ukraine, had already sparked concerns — even though the ROK maintained that the US was the designated end user.
Yoon has remained steadfast in his refusal to send weapons directly into the conflict. The recent agreement to “lend” 500,000 artillery rounds to Washington underscores Seoul’s apprehension that these rounds may ultimately be destined for Ukraine.
It is essential to acknowledge Yoon’s significant concessions, which include approving export requests for self-propelled howitzers containing South Korean components to Ukraine. Seoul’s willingness to provide the US with hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition, even if considered a loan, replenishes the latter’s supplies and may enable the shipment of more rounds from other sources to Ukraine.
Apart from its direct relations with neighbouring great powers, Seoul must also contend with Russian threats to intensify support for North Korea if South Korean military aid reaches the Ukrainian front lines. This issue has been an underlying concern since the conflict’s inception and was explicitly articulated by Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, in response to the ammunition loan announcement in April 2023.
Russia’s theatrical sabre rattling is more likely to draw Seoul closer to Ukraine and the US than dissuade it. One primary reason is the stark reality that Russia’s defence apparatus is struggling to meet the demands of its disastrous war, let alone supply high-end equipment to Pyongyang.
India, a long-time defence customer of Russia’s Rosoboronexport, has already announced that orders for Russian equipment remain unfulfilled due to Moscow’s inability to honour its arms delivery commitments. With the vast majority of its military committed to its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has little to offer North Korea.
Similarly, Russia’s war has relegated it to pariah state status in many circles. Moscow can scarcely afford to antagonize South Korea without further harming itself.
While its actions on the global stage do not preclude the possibility that Putin’s government might engage in such self-destructive behaviour, it would be another striking error to completely alienate South Korea by bolstering support for Pyongyang’s militaristic regime.
Moreover, despite Moscow’s threats, it lacks the capacity and resources to impose severe consequences on Ukraine’s supporters, especially those with whom it still retains some economic ties.
Russia’s threat emerges as South Korea aspires to establish itself as a regional leader, in line with Yoon’s campaign promise to transform the country into a global pivotal state that upholds democratic values and international rules.
While Seoul has attempted to strike a balance with Moscow throughout the war, persistent pressure from its ally, the US, combined with Moscow’s threats, may prompt the Yoon government to shift toward overt support for Ukraine.
Yoon has even hinted at this possibility, suggesting that it would be “difficult” for South Korea to limit itself to humanitarian and financial assistance in a situation where civilians are actively targeted, along with other egregious violations of the laws governing armed conflict.
The upcoming Biden-Yoon summit, marking the first time in 12 years that a South Korean president has been invited to the US for a state visit, will likely see the U.S. president urging his ROK counterpart to assume a more active role in defending Ukraine even if they do not mention the matter in their public statements.
As Japan contemplates changes to its own similar arms export policies, South Korea may seize this opportunity to reevaluate its stance.
Confronted with diminishing returns from appeasing an increasingly belligerent Russia and mindful of its own public messaging regarding its regional role, South Korea might find it advantageous to chart a new course with respect to its arms exports.
By aligning its remarkable production capacity with the US and European demand for weapons and munitions — both for supplying Ukraine and replenishing domestic stocks — South Korea could further solidify its position as a powerhouse in global arms exports.
Such a move remains politically contentious, but ongoing aggression against peaceful nations may prompt states like South Korea to reassess its long-held policies.