Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is now a little over a year old, and the conflict has transitioned to a war of attrition with little expectation that it will be resolved soon. With the conflict likely to continue, a key question will be how states such as South Korea can enhance their support for Ukraine to either end the war more quickly or help Kyiv better manage its economic and humanitarian effects.
South Korea moved quickly after the war began to support efforts to sanction Moscow. Seoul agreed to enforce U.S. and European Union export controls on strategic items, while extending those export controls to Belarus for its support of Russia’s invasion. Seoul has also supported the removal of some Russian banks from the SWIFT international payments system, while private cryptocurrency exchanges have also restricted the ability of IP addresses in Russia to access exchanges in South Korea.
Although not part of U.S. or European sanctions on Russian energy exports, South Korea has significantly cut its imports of Russian fossil fuels. Imports of Russian crude and refined petroleum products are down more than 70 percent by volume, while imports of LNG are down 40 percent over the last 12 months. Only imports of coal from Russia have grown.
South Korea has also taken steps to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees. In the initial months of the war, Seoul provided $100 million in aid related to the provision of emergency medical supplies, vaccines for children, electricity generators, and support for the security of Ukraine’s nuclear plants. Seoul also provided $3 million worth of generators to help Ukraine manage its power challenges this winter and has taken part in a UNICEF program to help Ukrainian refugees.
On the one year anniversary of Russia’s invasion, South Korea pledged an additional $130 million in assistance to Ukraine. In addition to providing financial assistance to Ukraine, these funds are expected to support the restoration of Ukraine’s power grid, demining, and ODA projects for reconstruction. All told, South Korea has committed to providing around $230 million to help Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees directly.
South Korea has also provided support in other ways. As Europe worked to build up its supplies of LNG in preparation for winter, South Korea allowed some of its LNG purchases to be diverted to Europe. It has also joined the World Food Program’s “Grain from Ukraine” program, which purchases Ukrainian grain for countries facing severe food shortages.
South Korea, however, has been reluctant to directly export arms to Ukraine. South Korean law prohibits the export of arms to countries involved in a conflict, but North Korea is an additional factor. The former Moon administration was concerned about damaging relations with Russia, which Moon’s government saw as a potential partner in bringing North Korea back to talks over Pyongyang’s nuclear program. For the current Yoon administration, there are concerns about the potential for Russia to retaliate against South Korean military support for Ukraine by providing North Korea with modern aircraft or other technology Pyongyang needs to advance its weapons programs.
Instead of sending arms directly to Ukraine, South Korea has taken a different approach. Seoul has authorized the export of parts or weapons that contain South Korean parts but are not wholly Korean weapons systems. It has also sold ammunition to the United States to be passed on to Ukraine, and is reportedly in talks to sell additional ammunition to Washington.
With Ukraine going through more ammunition than U.S. and European arms makers can produce, South Korea has been under increasing pressure by European officials to provide arms directly to Ukraine.
In light of South Korean restrictions on arms exports, there are three steps it can take to support the war effort in Ukraine. Seoul could undertake a high-level review of what weapons systems have South Korean components and provide pre-authorization for transfers of those items – similar to the authorization South Korea gave to Poland to transfer Krab howitzers to Ukraine. This would help ensure that weapons systems that are not wholly South Korean are transferred to Ukraine as needed.
South Korea could also look to backfill the stocks of other countries, similar to the ammunition shipments to the United States. Lastly, Seoul could also take steps to ensure that, even if it is unable to provide lethal aid, South Korea is taking a leading role in supplying non-lethal aid such as bulletproof vests, night vision goggles, and other items Ukraine needs to sustain its war effort.
South Korea’s concerns about Russia’s ability to transfer sensitive weapons technology should be taken seriously, but it should also be balanced with the deeper geopolitical changes the war has created. The relationship between North Korea and Russia is already deepening. North Korea has reportedly supplied arms to Russia’s Wagner Group, and Russia is no longer reporting trade data, meaning Moscow may also no longer be enforcing U.N. sanctions on North Korea. Russia is still likely holding back on sending certain sensitive items, but those inhibitions may be weakening regardless of how the war is resolved.
There are other steps South Korea can take to support Ukraine. One that could be critical to the war effort is enhanced vigilance on export controls. There have been suspicions that Russia is using imports from third countries such as Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, and Belarus to sidestep sanctions.
Exports of processor and control chips to Turkey surged nearly 1,500 percent in 2022, for example. There could be a reasonable explanation; the level of Turkey’s semiconductors imports from South Korea are in line with pre-pandemic imports and may simply reflect a normalization of trade. However, trade with Kazakhstan may warrant deeper scrutiny. Not only did exports of processor and control chips to Kazakhstan jump significantly from the last two years, but they rose to levels far beyond anything seen over the last decade. Ensuring that critical components are not smuggled to Russia through third countries is another important step South Korea can take.
While South Korea has recently pledged to increase its aid to Ukraine, according to the Kiel Institute’s Ukraine Support Tracker, only India and China have provided less as a percentage of GDP. Additionally, only India and China have provided less support for non-controversial aid to Ukrainian refugees. Although the tracker has not been updated for South Korea’s most recent pledge, it will not change these figures significantly, suggesting that there is additional scope for South Korean humanitarian support.
Lastly, South Korea could consider engaging more deeply in the process of post-war reconstruction. Estimates for rebuilding Ukraine’s physical infrastructure after the war range from $138 billion to $750 billion. Although South Korea’s most recent pledge of support does include the prospect of ODA for reconstruction, it could commit to working more closely with the EU on developing a post-war recovery plan and providing support through a coordinated process. South Korea could also offer to begin negotiations on a free trade agreement to help boost Ukrainian exports after the war.
As the world’s 10th largest economy and a significant arms producer, there is scope for South Korea to play a larger role in aiding Ukraine. It can do this by streamlining any military aid it can legally provide, cracking down on efforts to smuggle sanctioned items to Russia, and increasing its humanitarian and reconstruction aid. In the long run, it could also be in Seoul’s interest to play a larger role. The war has shown the stresses being placed on U.S. and European arms production. Should a war break out on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea may one day need to turn to Europe to restock its supplies.