US to buy South Korea artillery shells ‘for Ukraine’

South Korea insists policy against providing lethal aid to Ukraine remains unchanged, and ammunition is for US use.

South Korean soldiers prepare 155 mm howitzers during military exercise in 2013. The US plans to buy 100,000 rounds of howitzer artillery from South Korean manufacturers to provide to Ukraine, a US official said. [File: Lee Jin-man/AP]
South Korean soldiers prepare 155mm howitzers during a military exercise in 2013. The US plans to buy 100,000 rounds of howitzer artillery from South Korean manufacturers to provide to Ukraine, a US official said [File: Lee Jin-man/AP]

Washington plans to buy 100,000 South Korean-made artillery shells for use in the Ukraine war, a United States official has said, though South Korea has insisted its policy against providing lethal aid to Ukraine remained unchanged and it expects the end user of the ammunition to be US forces.

Citing US officials familiar with the deal, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US and South Korea were nearing an agreement to buy 100,000 rounds of 155mm artillery shells that would be delivered to Ukraine.

A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed with Reuters news agency on Friday that Washington wanted to send the South Korean artillery shells to Ukraine.

The official said that Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI) funds could be used to buy  the ammunition, but that it was unclear whether the shells would be shipped through US territory.

The official warned that news of the talks being made public could threaten the deal.

Responding to reports on the ammunition deal, South Korea’s defence ministry said on Friday that its position on not providing lethal aid to Ukraine remained unchanged, and its “confidential” negotiations on the sale of the artillery shells were being conducted “under the premise that the US is the end user”.

“In order to make up for the shortage of 155mm ammunition inventories in the US, negotiations are ongoing between the US and Korean companies to export ammunition,” the ministry said in a statement.

South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported on Friday that the country’s defence minister Lee Jong-sup and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had “agreed ‘in principle’ to proceed with the artillery deal” during talks earlier this month.

“But the allies are having related talks under the premise that the materials will be used by the US,” Yonhap reported, citing a statement from the country’s defence ministry.

The ministry added that the South Korean government had not altered its commitment to refrain from supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons, Yonhap said.

Putin warns Seoul

A US ally, South Korea has sought to avoid antagonising Russia, for economic reasons and because of the influence that Moscow can exert with North Korea.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol denied last month that Seoul had provided any lethal weapons to Ukraine after Russian President Vladimir Putin said that such a decision would destroy their bilateral relations.

Putin made the remark at a conference in Moscow, accusing the West of inciting the war in Ukraine and warning South Korea against supplying weapons to Ukraine.

Putin equated such a move by Seoul to Moscow sending arms to North Korea.

“We’ve provided humanitarian and peaceful assistance to Ukraine in solidarity with the international community but never lethal weapons or any such things,” Yoon told reporters.

But, he added: “In any case, it’s a matter of our sovereignty, and I’d like you to know that we are trying to maintain peaceful and good relations with all countries around the world, including Russia”.

Seoul has provided bulletproof vests, helmets and other non-lethal military as well as medical supplies to Ukraine, but has turned down Kyiv’s requests for weapons, local media reported.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called on South Korea to provide weapons, which he said would be “indispensable”.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday that Washington would provide an additional $400m in arms, ammunition and other equipment from the defence department.

“This drawdown will bring the total US military assistance for Ukraine to an unprecedented level of approximately $19.3 billion since the beginning of the Administration,” Blinken said in a statement.

“The air defence, long-range, and precision fire capabilities that we are providing are carefully calibrated to best serve Ukraine on the battlefield as it makes gains from Kherson to Kharkiv,” Blinken said.

“We will continue to support Ukraine so it can defend itself and be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table when the time comes.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies