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In the Koreas, why the denials about artillery for the Russo-Ukrainian war?

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, on April 25, 2019. North Korea on Nov. 8, 2022 accused the United States of cooking up a “plot-breeding story” on its alleged arms transfer to Russia, arguing it has never sent artillery shells to Moscow.

They both may be lying, but North and South Korea agree on one point when it comes to the war in Ukraine: Neither wants to be revealed publicly as exporting artillery shells for either side — the North Koreans to the Russians, and the South Koreans to 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 all-important to their vital friends and allies. The United States is bound in a longstanding treaty alliance with South Korea, and Russia is completely on North Korea’s side as an old-time Korean War ally. Russia has blocked United Nations Security Council resolutions condemning North Korea for recent missile tests, in return for which North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has loudly supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Actually going a critical step further and arming either side is quite another matter.

South Korea’s defense ministry says its “policy stance” remains “unchanged” — that the “ROK [Republic of Korea] will not provide lethal weapons to Ukraine.” The South issued that denial after the Wall Street Journal reported a scheme under which South Korea would ship artillery shells to the Americans, who would then pass them on to their Ukrainian friends. 

North Korea is equally emphatic in its denial of a Pentagon report that the North was providing artillery shells much needed for Russian forces, reportedly in short supply. “We once again make clear that we have never had ‘arms dealings’ with Russia and that we have no plan to do so in the future,” said the North’s defense ministry in a report carried in English by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency. 

The ministry denounced the American 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] in the international arena by invoking the illegal ‘sanctions resolution’ of the U.N. Security Council.” 

Russia was, if anything, more emphatic. The Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, slammed the claim as “fake news” in an all-encompassing denial: “Everything said by American representatives is a lie from the beginning to the end.” 

The responses from both Koreas suggest that neither wants to be identified directly in a proxy conflict, despite their support of their alliance partners. North Korea’s Kim has backed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and South Korea, not so enthusiastically, has sided with its American ally’s anxiety to defend Ukraine. 

North Korean denials, of course, are never to be taken at face value. North Korea has had plenty of practice test-firing its artillery shells for accuracy, range and explosive capacity in war games that Kim ordered in defiance of exercises by American and South Korean forces. He also has ordered multiple missile tests and is believed to be considering a seventh nuclear test — his first since 2017. 

There’s no doubt, moreover, that the North — mired in poverty and hunger while investing in nukes and missiles — is desperate for funds, some of which it gets by counterfeiting American $100 bills, selling narcotics and, over the years, exporting arms, including cruise missiles, to Iran and Syria. Considering that record, the North might be expected to welcome any opportunity for shipping shells and other war materiel to Russia.

Against this background, the Pentagon spokesman, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, is sticking to the original claim, saying simply, “The information we have is that the DPRK is covertly supplying Russia with a significant number of artillery shells.” 

Regarding South Korean arms sales to Ukraine via the Pentagon, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and South Korea’s defense minister, Lee Jong-sup, reportedly have “agreed in principle” to the deal. U.S. defense officials have acknowledged the Koreans are providing maybe 100,000 shells for Ukrainian forces. 

Thus, the denial of any such plan comes not from Washington but from Seoul. A South Korean defense spokesman has confirmed the South, a major arms exporter to a wide range of countries, is in “ongoing consultation between U.S. and ROK companies” about sales but insists they’re  just “to supplement the lack of 155mm artillery ammunition in the U.S.,” not for the Americans to re-export to Ukraine.

The South Koreans, of course, can cover themselves by claiming what the Americans choose to do with the shells is up to them, and the Americans didn’t say why they needed them so badly.

So far, the Americans have not let their South Korean ally off the hook with a statement that the shells would be exclusively for American, not Ukrainian, forces. If the Pentagon were to ship the same type of shells to Ukraine, how would the South Koreans know where they were made?

A critical issue is whether the shells would go to Ukraine via the U.S. or be shipped directly from South Korea to Ukraine. The interplay of confirmation and denial suggests the South Koreans would have to ship them to the U.S., whence they would be on their way to Ukraine.

The need to transit the U.S. would be quite an inconvenience, however, so why not secretly ship them directly to Ukraine, or maybe to a west European port for transit to Ukraine? Just to make the cover story complete, would it be necessary to transfer them from Korean to American or European cargo containers? Actually, to avoid that nuisance, they might go into American containers at Korean ports, probably Busan, for loading onto South Korean ships.

The denial shows South Korean sensitivities about being considered a participant in a war that’s 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, would like to remain on decent terms with Moscow in order to counter Russian support for North Korea and maintain the South’s dealings with Russia, to which it exports manufactured products while importing natural gas.

To the South, any intimation that it’s playing an active role in the war against the Russians is obviously deeply embarrassing. 

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.

Tags artillery Kim Jong Un Maria Zakharova military aid to Ukraine North Korea Russia-Ukraine war South Korea
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