Korean arms exports versus military aid to Ukraine

March 5, 2023 

South Korean K2 Black Panther MBT

No one expects Korea to take a leading role in helping Ukraine survive Russia’s criminal war of aggression. And I should also say that I find Korean public opinion on the issue quite bearable. The most horrible crimes against humanity in Europe since World War II may, seemingly far away, not top people’s list of concerns. But I rarely encounter the moral confusion, misinformation mixed with pieces of Putin’s propaganda or irresponsible talk of “neutrality” which are spreading even in countries that support Ukraine more actively, not to mention the cynical glee heard from parts of the developing world.

The fact that South Korea is among the very few countries outside Europe, North America and Oceania which have made some sacrifices, materially supporting Ukraine or sanctioning Russia, is not to be belittled as just another expression of the desire to appear on the same page with the world’s leading democracies. Korean sympathy for the victimized nation is genuine and deeply rooted in historic experience.

But it has gone nearly unnoticed how illogically, even hypocritically, the South Korean government answers requests for military aid to Ukraine. Western diplomats hinting at the contradiction are told that it is the government’s “position not to supply arms to countries engaged in conflict.” This means that Ukraine is disqualified as a receiver of weapons made in Korea precisely by actually being invaded. Other countries in central and eastern Europe, seeing themselves “only” threatened by Russia and not (yet) “engaged in war,” are warmly welcomed, in contrast, as customers of Korea’s arms industry.

I absolutely agree that governments should strictly control arms exports to rule out any abuse of dangerous products. But if you help politically trustworthy countries prepare for self-defense, how can you not help those already under attack? Whether a country actually “engages” in self-defense is, unfortunately, not its own choice.

Of course, no country with neighbors that South Korea has would risk its own preparedness out of solidarity with fellow democracies. But to reach President Yoon Suk Yeol’s declared goal of making South Korea the world’s number 4 arms exporter by 2027, the government is so eager to grab the “opportunity” of Russia’s aggression and to satisfy the rapidly growing demand by its horrified neighbors that concerns have been raised about the capacities for simultaneous self-supply.

The real reason for not providing the one country under actual attack with means of defense is, then, obvious: Forced to “engage” in a struggle to survive, Ukraine is basically bankrupt and needs military aid in contrast to “arms imports.” It is good to cooperate with other potential victims of Russia’s aggression who, mostly NATO- and EU members, can still pay. But ironic “principles” will sooner or later damage Korea’s credibility.


  1. Indeed, S. Korea’s refusal to send weapons to Ukraine will not be a positive thing for the country. Switzerland, too, has severely damaged its image, and so has Israel, for their stance to let an innocent nation being torn to pieces by a savage country.

  2. The “Korea solution” is likely to be the only way forward for Ukraine. Even after total victory, the Ukrainians will still have a savage and evil neighbour that wants to murder them all.
    SK has 28,500 US troops permanently stationed there. Ukraine must have the same, plus an independent nuclear deterrent.
    I find SK’s attitude to be rather despicable. They rely on the US for security, yet they won’t help Ukraine, which does not enjoy that luxury.
    If the SK’s want to keep their rotten attitude but not lose total credibility, they can send $5 Bn in cash aid. They can easily afford it.

  3. The only reasons why I think South Korea might not send weapons in the current situation, are the perhaps paranoid idea that russia could capture the equipment (especially if it’s got some kind of secret tech), and that if china tries invading Taiwan, then the Koreans will everything for a defense. Being so close in distance to china, and constantly threatened by their insane cousins from the north, not to mention being small in size, I don’t blame them. I had to look up this information, South Korea is almost 4 times smaller than Japan. A phrase “the spirit is willing, but the body is weak,” comes to mind.

    • I was thinking the same thing, Mac, but changed my mind when I read that they are willing to sell their stuff to other countries. If they need their stuff so much, then why sell it?

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