Yoon says S. Korea could provide non-humanitarian aid to Ukraine

April 19, 2023

President Yoon Suk Yeol has said South Korea could provide aid beyond humanitarian or financial support if Ukraine comes under a large-scale attack against civilians, according to an interview published Wednesday.

Yoon made the remark in the interview with Reuters ahead of an upcoming state visit to the United States, signaling a shift in Seoul’s policy of not providing lethal weapons to Ukraine in its war with Russia.

“If there is a situation the international community cannot condone, such as any large-scale attacks on civilians, massacres or serious violations of the laws of war, it might be difficult for us to insist only on humanitarian or financial support,” Yoon said, according to Reuters.

President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the presidential office in Seoul on April 18, 2023. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the presidential office in Seoul on April 18, 2023. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)

The South Korean government has been looking at ways to help defend and rebuild Ukraine, and will take “the most appropriate measures” after considering its relationship with parties engaged in the war and developments on the battlefield, he said.

“I believe there won’t be limitations to the extent of the support to defend and restore a country that’s been illegally invaded both under international and domestic law,” Yoon said.

The presidential office dismissed speculation Yoon was alluding to a change in policy regarding aid to Ukraine.

“The government’s position has not changed,” a presidential official told Yonhap News Agency, noting the conditions Yoon attached to expanding aid. “The international community has high expectations of South Korea’s role, and his answer was given in that context.”

Another presidential official told reporters the key is to assess the situation in Ukraine.

“The answer should be understood at face value,” the official said.

When asked about Russia’s possible angry response to Yoon’s remarks, the official declined to answer a hypothetical question.

Yoon is set to travel to Washington next week for a state visit marking the 70th anniversary of the bilateral alliance.

During his summit with U.S. President Joe Biden, Yoon told Reuters he plans to seek “tangible outcomes” on the allies’ efforts to improve their responses to North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities.

South Korea will also improve its surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence analysis capability and develop “ultrahigh-performance, high-power weapons” to counter North Korea’s threats, he said.

Yoon said South Korea is looking to strengthen bilateral measures with the United States in terms of information-sharing, joint contingency planning and joint execution of the plans, rather than envisioning an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s nuclear planning group involving Japan.

“In terms of responding to a powerful nuclear attack, I think stronger measures than what NATO has should be prepared,” he said. “I think there’s no big problem if Japan is joining, but since there’s been much progress between the U.S. and South Korea, it would be more efficient to create this system ourselves first.”

Yoon has taken a tougher stance on Pyongyang than his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, who helped broker historic summits between then U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Yoon said he is open to dialogue with the North but opposes any “surprise” summit with its leader if it simply is meant to “show off” to voters, out of domestic political interests.

Yoon also spoke about the tensions in the Taiwan Strait, saying it is not simply an issue between China and Taiwan but, like the North Korea issue, is a global issue.

“These tensions occurred because of the attempts to change the status quo by force, and we together with the international community absolutely oppose such a change,” he said.

In response to the interview, the Kremlin said any decision by South Korea to supply arms to Ukraine would make South Korea a participant in the conflict.

“Unfortunately, Seoul has taken a rather unfriendly position in this whole story,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in a briefing, according to Reuters. “The start of arms deliveries will obliquely mean a certain stage of involvement in this conflict.”

The Russian Embassy in Seoul later said in a statement it is “closely following the position” of South Korea on the issue of provision of support to Ukraine.

“Such actions (potential provision of lethal weapons) would definitely ruin Russian-Korean relations that have seen constructive development for the benefit of both nations over the last three decades,” the embassy said in a statement sent to Yonhap News Agency.