They may both be lying, but North Korea and South Korea agree on one thing when it comes to the war in Ukraine: neither wants to be publicly revealed as exporting artillery shells. for either side: the North Koreans to the Russians and the South Koreans to the Russians. the Ukrainians via their American ally.
At stake is the whole question of their involvement in a war that means nothing to either of them but is very important to their vital friends and allies. The United States is bound by a longstanding treaty alliance with South Korea, and Russia is completely on North Korea’s side as a longtime Korean War ally. Russia blocked United Nations Security Council resolutions condemning North Korea for recent missile tests, in return for which North Korean leader Kim Jong Un loudly backed the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In fact, going further and weaponizing either side is a whole different matter.
The South Korean Ministry of Defense says its “political position” remains “unchanged” – that the “ROK [Republic of Korea] will not supply lethal weapons to Ukraine. South issued this denial after the Wall Street Journal reported a scheme whereby South Korea would send artillery shells to the Americans, who would then pass them on to their Ukrainian friends.
North Korea is equally adamant in its denial of a Pentagon report that the North was supplying much-needed artillery shells to the Russian forces, apparently in short supply. “We make it clear once again that we have never had an ‘arms trade’ with Russia and we have no plans to do so in the future,” the North Korean Defense Ministry said. . a report broadcast in English by the Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang.
The ministry denounced the US claim, first made by National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, as another “hostile attempt to tarnish the image of the DPRK”. [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] on the international scene by invoking the illegal UN Security Council “sanctions resolution”.
Russia was, on the contrary, more emphatic. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the claim “fake news” in a blanket denial: “Everything US officials say is a lie from start to finish.”
The responses from both Koreas suggest that neither Korea wants to be directly identified in a proxy conflict, despite their support for their alliance partners. North Korean Kim backed Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s invasion of Ukraine and South Korea less enthusiastically sided with its US ally’s anxiety to defend the Ukraine.
North Korean denials, of course, should never be taken at face value. North Korea has trained extensively in testing its artillery shells for accuracy, range and explosive capacity in war games that Kim ordered in defiance of drills by US and South Korean forces. He also commanded several missile tests and is thought to consider a seventh nuclear test – its first since 2017.
There is no doubt, moreover, that the North – mired in poverty and hunger as it invests in nuclear weapons and missiles – desperately needs funds, some of which it obtains by counterfeiting 100 US dollars, selling narcotics and, over the years, exporting weapons, including cruise missiles, to Iran and Syria. Given this record, one would expect the North to welcome any opportunity to ship shells and other war materials to Russia.
In this context, Pentagon spokesman Brig. General Pat Ryder stands by the original assertion, saying simply, “The information we have is that the DPRK is secretly supplying Russia with a significant number of artillery shells.”
Regarding South Korean arms sales to Ukraine via the Pentagon, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup reportedly “gave their approval in principle” to the ‘OK. US defense officials have acknowledged that the Koreans were supplying perhaps 100,000 shells to Ukrainian forces.
Thus, the denial of such a plan does not come from Washington but from Seoul. A South Korean defense spokesman confirmed that the South, a major arms exporter to a wide range of countries, is in “ongoing consultation between U.S. and Korean companies” on sales, but insists they are just “to supplement the lack of 155mm artillery ammunition in the U.S. “, and not for the Americans to re-export them to Ukraine.
The South Koreans, of course, can cover themselves by pretending that what the Americans choose to do with the shells is up to them, and the Americans haven’t said why they need them so badly.
So far, the Americans have not let their South Korean ally off the hook by saying the shells will be exclusively for US, not Ukrainian, forces. If the Pentagon shipped the same type of shells to Ukraine, how would the South Koreans know where they were made?
A crucial question is whether the shells would go to Ukraine via the United States or be shipped directly from South Korea to Ukraine. The interplay of confirmation and denial suggests that the South Koreans should ship them to the United States, from where they would be on their way to Ukraine.
However, the need to transit through the United States would be quite inconvenient, so why not secretly ship them directly to Ukraine, or perhaps to a Western European port for transit to Ukraine? Just for complete coverage, would it be necessary to transfer them from Korean cargo containers to US or European containers? In fact, to avoid this nuisance, they could enter American containers at Korean ports, probably Busan, to be loaded onto South Korean ships.
The denial shows South Korean sensitivities to being seen as a participant in a war that is far removed, geographically if not politically and diplomatically, from its own direct concerns. Seoul, which had been slow to express its support for Ukraine against the Russians, wants to stay on good terms with Moscow in order to counter Russian support for North Korea and maintain the South’s relations with Russia, to which it exports. manufactured goods while importing natural gas.
In the South, any indication that he is playing an active role in the war against the Russians is obviously deeply embarrassing.
Donald Kirk has been a journalist for over 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflicts in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and the Chicago Tribune. He is currently a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books on Asian affairs.