It is important for South Korea to ensure that its provision of weapons to Ukraine's battlefields aligns with the consensus of the international community, given the delicate balance between the increasing demand for lethal aid and the potential risks of retaliation, according to a leading scholar specializing in European Union studies.
As Russia's war in Ukraine continues, South Korea faces a challenging situation. The US, NATO and Ukraine itself have demanded that the eighth-largest arms exporter provide weapons to the war-torn nation while Russia has warned Korea against arming Ukraine.
Multiple news outlets have reported that Korea is indirectly sending ammunition to Ukraine, but the presidential office has denied the reports.
“The situation of South Korea’s arms support for Ukraine has now become too big to conceal or disguise,” said Lee Jae-seung, professor and Jean Monnet chair of Korea University’s international studies department, and president of the Korean Society for Contemporary European Studies, in an interview with The Korea Herald.
Lee understands the Yoon administration's dilemma that it cannot "explicitly" support Ukraine due to the potential risk of retaliation from Russia. Russia threatened in April to arm North Korea if South Korea agrees to provide lethal aid to Ukraine.
Despite the threats, Yoon may inevitably send weapons to Ukraine under the growing pressure from various countries, particularly its biggest ally, the United States, and to uphold the consistency of his statements emphasizing defending "freedom" and practicing "international solidarity." He has recently adjusted South Korea's position and hinted at the potential of supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine if deemed necessary.
If a situation arises where South Korea needs to take an "explicit" stance in supporting Ukraine with arms, it is crucial to "establish principles and rules within the international community," he said. “Currently the principles are obscure.”
Lee said that it is necessary to “form a common consensus within the international legal framework” in terms of countering actions that infringe on sovereignty and defy international law instead of "approaching the matter solely within domestic politics or acting independently."
“By supporting Ukraine, including (providing) lethal weapons, based on clear principles and rules within the international community, Korea could minimize pressure from Russia,” he said.
Lee sees the upcoming NATO summit in July as a suitable platform for addressing the matter. Yoon was invited to the NATO summit when he met with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg early this year. During his visit to Seoul, Stoltenberg called on South Korea to provide military support to Ukraine.
Lee said the war in Ukraine shows “why we should unite” in the international community and that security cannot be guaranteed solely through a single layer of protection.
He stated that Korea should broaden its security alliance, which currently relies solely on its alliance with the US. This expansion would involve incorporating NATO, along with its three other Asia-Pacific partners: Australia, Japan and New Zealand.
By establishing multilayered security alliances, Korea aims to "address instability and garner support during precarious situations," specifically in response to threats from North Korea. Indeed, NATO and the four Asia-Pacific members are the "core countries" that can support Korea in case of an emergency, he said.
Europe holds significant importance for South Korea, encompassing both security and economic aspects. The European Union stands as Korea's third-largest trading partner and represents the largest foreign direct investor in South Korea. Notably, the EU takes the lead in championing the annual adoption of the United Nations resolution on North Korean human rights. This year, South Korea resumed its role as a co-sponsor, marking its return after a five-year absence.
Despite its importance, South Korea has overlooked the significance of the European partners and has taken their cooperation for granted while putting too much effort into the US, Japan and China, the EU expert said.
As Korea's policy on North Korea has often been inconsistent, which undermines trust from Europe. “We asked for lifting the sanction on North Korea, and at other times, we demanded pressure on North Korea's human rights situation," according to Lee.
President Yoon sought to maintain a good relationship with the EU by attending the NATO summit last year and holding a summit with EU leaders this month.
However, there is still “a gap between rhetoric and policy priorities,” he said. “Policy priorities on the EU is used to be buried in the alliance with the US. There have been insufficient follow-up measures even after NATO summits with European leaders .”
Lee highlighted that the timing is ideal for establishing a new comprehensive framework for European diplomacy, given that the European Union is currently in the process of developing its security identity following the Ukraine crisis.
The recent positive developments in Korea-Japan relations are also a source of encouragement for Korea's European diplomacy.
"The previously strained relationship with Japan had hindered Korea's effectiveness in conveying its message to Europe, considering Japan's significant influence in the region," he explained. "During the period of strained relations, many of Korea's intended messages were either not supported or impeded by Japan."
The improved relations now send a positive signal to Europe, where Korea and Japan are viewed as highly reliable partners, he added.
Lee said the European strategy should include matters extending beyond North Korea-related issues.
"We are overly fixated on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea, the alliance with the US, and nuclear deterrence. It seems like everyone is discussing the same agenda," he said. "Korea's vulnerability lies in its limited engagement with global security."
The professor emphasized the need to expand our perspective beyond North Korea. "We can no longer build the defense we want with a security perspective that is only focused on the Korean Peninsula and Korea-US relations.”