SEOUL — Visiting NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Monday urged industrial powerhouse and U.S. ally South Korea to join the other democracies arming embattled Ukraine.
It is a novel situation for Seoul but one it may have to get used to since it emerged last year as a critical node in the supply chain of the “arsenal of democracy.”
Speaking at Seoul’s Chey Institute for Advanced Studies, the NATO chief thanked South Korea for its ongoing supply of nonlethal aid to Ukraine but urged it to do more because of an “urgent” need for ammunition.
South Korea’s trade policy does not allow it to arm belligerents, but nations including Germany, Norway and Sweden that had “long-standing policies not to export weapons to countries in conflict” have shifted their postures since Russia invaded Ukraine, Mr. Stoltenberg said.
Seoul is not the only capital under pressure to arm Kyiv. After considerable agonizing, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz agreed last week to send advanced Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine. That shift greenlighted other nations that operate the German-licensed armor to donate Leopards to Ukraine.
South Korea remains cautious about Ukraine. Its nonlethal aid includes medical gear, body armor and rations. In November, reports from Washington stated that Seoul had agreed to supply 100,000 rounds of 155 mm artillery ammunition to the U.S., which would then transmit it to Ukraine.
A South Korean Defense Ministry spokesperson told The Washington Times that the ammunition shipment is “in process” but clarified that the end user is the U.S.
That is ammunition, but clearly, Seoul has the capacity to make a more significant difference. Last year, it agreed to a massive series of deals with Poland to supply hundreds of tanks, mobile artillery, rocket artillery and combat aircraft.
Though pricing has not been disclosed, two industry sources estimate the value of the deals at $18.5 billion and “over $20 billion.” South Korea’s total arms exports in 2021 were $7 billion in what was then a record year.
“If we believe in freedom, democracy, if we don’t want autocracy and totalitarianism to win, then [Ukraine needs] weapons,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.
The NATO chief arrived Sunday in Seoul and is heading to Japan. In South Korea, he met with Foreign Minister Park Jin, Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup and President Yoon Suk Yeol.
Per a readout from the South Korean presidency, the two discussed matters including North Korea and Indo-Pacific strategy. Mr. Stoltenberg stated that expanding cooperation in the defense industry is “encouraging.”
Austin makes a stop
Mr. Stoltenberg is not the only high-profile visitor to South Korea. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in-country on Monday afternoon and will meet Tuesday with Mr. Lee, the defense minister.
According to the Pentagon, Mr. Austin will subsequently visit the Philippines and focus on “capabilities and interoperability with the treaty allies.”
He also will discuss a wide-ranging exercise schedule that is sure to spook North Korea, and he will “speak about the importance of extended deterrence” in Seoul. That follows discussions in South Korea about the importance of deploying U.S. strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula.
Last year, Pyongyang engaged in its busiest-ever year of missile tests and shifted to a more offensive doctrine for the use of — so far untested — tactical nuclear arms.
It is unknown whether Mr. Austin will mirror Mr. Stoltenberg’s plea for South Korea to join nations arming Ukraine, but material and political grounds suggest he may.
Materially: Even if the end-user of the “in-process” 155 mm ammunition shipment is the U.S., the Korean shells can “backfill” U.S. stocks, allowing American armorers to “front-fill” Ukraine with existing inventory.
Politically: With an emergent China-Iran-Russia bloc arguably dominating Eurasia, Washington has been promoting linkages among its allies at the continent’s western (NATO) and eastern (Japan, South Korea) flanks.
Last year, the two Asian democracies were invited to join the NATO summit in Madrid for the first time. Seoul opened a liaison office at NATO headquarters and became the first Asian nation to join NATO’s Estonia-based Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence.
In the arms market
The big issue is South Korea’s sudden surge to prominence as a global arms supplier, which appears to be shifting to terrain.
In a surprise deal announced in August, Seoul agreed to supply a massive consignment of NATO-standard weapons to Warsaw: 980 K2 main battle tanks, 648 K9 self-propelled 155 mm howitzers and 48 FA-50 combat aircraft. In October, it added 288 K239 Chunmoo multilaunch rocket systems — similar to the U.S. HIMARS — to the package.
The purchase is colossal. Take main battle tanks. The 980 K2s that South Korea will supply to Poland will, according to Combat Tank Fleet Strength by Country (2023), published by GlobalFirepower.com, outnumber the tank fleets of European defense powerhouses Germany (266), Britain (227) and France (222) combined — which field 715 in total.
The deal includes major “offset” components. The K9s will incorporate Polish combat suites, and the K239s will be mounted on Polish chassis. Further manufacturing is planned in Poland, inserting the Eastern European country, previously heavily armed with Warsaw Pact-heritage systems, deep into the NATO supply chain.
The South Korean kit — the first tranche was delivered in October — enables Moscow-phobic Warsaw to donate older equipment to Ukraine.
Think tanks and former military pundits have largely overlooked South Korea’s appearance in the arms supply arena. That community has, for months, bemoaned an alleged incapacity of Western armorers — conditioned to supplying militaries fighting low-intensity counterinsurgencies — to feed Ukraine’s hunger for war material on an industrial scale.
South Korea, a Group of 10 economy, is home to a powerhouse industrial base that boasts high-end technologies, excellence in quality control, massive capacity and timely project execution.
Since 1953, it has been in a tightknit defense alliance with the United States. That partnership grants it access to leading-edge U.S./NATO standard weapons.
These two factors have allowed Seoul to climb the military value chain. Today, it builds systems domestically, including main battle tanks, submarines and ballistic missiles.
The economic upside is considerable. The downside is unaccustomed political pressure to place its military-industrial complex at the service of an embattled democracy.
If it wishes to, South Korea can offer an excuse. Unlike Western arms suppliers, South Korea faces an active, proximate, existential threat: North Korea. Seoul could argue that it requires domestic defense output for domestic defense.
North Korea “is one good reason why we cannot go full-blown on this,” said Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general. “But we could expand our capacities for building new and more weapons systems.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. has accused North Korea of supplying trainloads of artillery ammunition to Russia, most recently to the notorious Wagner Group. North Korea angrily denies the accusation, and Pyongyang state media lambasted Mr. Stoltenberg’s visit, calling it a “prelude” to war.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the orientation of Eurasia’s neighbors.