Ohen Yoon Suk-yeol talked about the need for South Korea and nato to protect “universal values” at the alliance meeting in June 2022, he might not have imagined how badly his words would come back to bite him. But they did. During a visit to Seoul on January 30, Jens Stoltenberg urged the South Korean president to help meet Ukraine’s urgent need for ammunition. It was time, according to natosecretary-general, for Mr Yoon to “step up”.
Since invading Ukraine last February, South Korea has provided it with non-lethal aid, including gas masks and medical supplies. And under Mr. Yoon, who took office last May, he strongly condemned Russia’s aggression. In a recent interview, Mr Yoon called it “illegal and illegitimate”. He also suggested that letting the war continue could embolden his country’s vicious neighbor, North Korea, into believing that “the international community would not respond to an act of invasion with appropriate sanctions.” Such statements are in line with Mr. Yoon’s stated ambition, as Mr. Stoltenberg might have reminded him, of making his country a more assertive global leader and defender of the rules-based order. Yet despite having one of the largest and fastest growing defense industries in the world, South Korea still refuses to send weapons to Ukraine.
The law and the political sentiment of the country oppose it. Under its foreign trade law, South Korea is not allowed to export weapons except for “peaceful purposes”.[s]”. There is no scrupulous adherence. It has signed arms deals with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, both of which have sent weapons to Yemen’s civil war. Moreover, as Mr. Stoltenberg publicly reminded Mr. Yoon, many other countries, including Norway, Germany and Sweden, removed these self-imposed restrictions in order to ship arms to Ukraine. . Yet even if Mr. Yoon wanted to follow their example, he seems unable to do so.
The South Korean parliament should change the law. And it is controlled by an opposition leader, Lee Jae-myung, hostile to Mr. Yoon and lukewarm at best towards Ukraine. Mr. Lee initially accused its chairman, Volodymyr Zelensky, of being partly responsible for the war. And though Mr. Lee claims to have revised that view, he is in no mood to let Mr. Yoon bend the rules or call for a major change in foreign policy. Mr Lee accuses the president of launching a vendetta against him in the form of two separate corruption investigations in which the opposition leader was implicated.
Such an inward-looking policy underscores how difficult it will be for Yoon to turn South Korea into the “global pivot state” he envisioned. In a poll last year, only 15% of respondents were in favor of supplying arms to Ukrainians. And even among the country’s small foreign policy elite, there is only moderate enthusiasm to do so. Many fear to enrage Russia, which would have a significant influence on North Korea. Such distrust was evident last November after the Biden administration reportedly negotiated with South Korea to buy artillery shells to send to Ukraine. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, had previously warned South Korea that sending weapons to Ukraine would “destroy our relations”. Mr. Yoon’s government was quick to insist that America would be the end user of the shells.
This ambiguous position is testing not only Mr. Yoon’s hope for global leadership, but also his gullibility. South Korean defense companies, known for rapidly producing many high-quality weapons at competitive prices, are booming thanks to the global demand for weapons triggered by the war. The country’s defense exports have grown from nearly $7.3 billion in 2021 to $17 billion in 2022. And many of them are destined for countries arming Ukraine, ostensibly to allow them to replenish their out of stock. A recent deal with Poland, worth 20 trillion won ($16.4 billion), saw the Poles replace the howitzers they donated to Ukraine last year.
Under such circumstances, South Korea’s legalistic distinction between arming Ukraine and its allies seems pointless. In fact, says Jang Won-joon of the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade, a government think tank, South Korea’s view is that once its weapons have been shipped, “this is none of our business” where they end.
Mr. Yoon’s aim to develop the defense industry at least appears to be on track. He wants to make South Korea, in 2021, the eighth arms exporter, the fourth after America, France and Russia. But it’s a shame that his country’s weak position in Ukraine is costing him a clear opportunity to align his ambitions for mercantile and global leadership. In its sometimes torturous effort to occupy a space between America, its key security partner, and China, its most important economic partner, South Korea is trying to manage two irreconcilable forces. It is almost the opposite case. In its Ukraine policy, it fails to take advantage of the joint commercial and geopolitical opportunity that the war has given it. ■