South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has made a surprise visit to Ukraine, offering a show of support for the country in its war against Russia.
Yoon’s office said on Saturday that he travelled to Ukraine with his wife, Kim Keon-hee, following trips to Lithuania for a NATO summit and to Poland. It is his first visit since Russia invaded Ukraine almost 17 months ago.
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After the two leaders met, Zelenskyy thanked Seoul for its “firm support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and the “significant political, security, economic and humanitarian aid” it has supplied since the start of Russia’s war.
“Today, during this first visit of the president of the Republic of Korea to Ukraine in the history of our relations, we talked about everything that is important for people to lead a normal and safe life,” Zelenskyy said, adding, “Thank you for the meaningful talks. Thank you for your strong support.”
Yoon pledged on Saturday to “expand the scale” of his country’s non-lethal military assistance to Ukraine, adding that humanitarian aid would be increased to $150m in 2023 from $100m last year.
He also said that he and Zelenskyy agreed on cooperating on post-war reconstruction efforts in Ukraine. Additionally, South Korea will also launch a scholarship fund named after Yoon and Zelenskyy to expand support for Ukrainian students in South Korea.
Earlier, Yoon toured Bucha and Irpin, two small cities near Kyiv where mass graves and bodies of civilians were found in the streets after Russian troops retreated from the capital region last year. He laid flowers at a monument to the country’s war dead.
“The president first toured the Bucha city massacre site near the capital Kyiv and the city of Irpin, where missile attacks were concentrated on civilian residential areas,” Yoon’s senior adviser for press affairs, Kim Eun-hye, said in a statement.
In his recent written responses to questions from The Associated Press, Yoon said that the security of the Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions is closely intertwined, saying: “In particular, the war in Ukraine has reminded us all that a security crisis in one particular region can have a global impact.”
“Ukraine now reminds me of South Korea of the past,” Yoon said, hailing the international assistance that allowed his country to “pull off a miraculous victory” over the North and eventually rise to become one of the world’s major economies.
A United States ally and rising arms exporter, South Korea has faced renewed pressure to provide weapons to Ukraine, which Yoon’s administration has resisted in favour of humanitarian and financial aid, wary of Russia’s influence over North Korea.
Yoon had said this week that his administration was preparing to send de-mining equipment and ambulances, following a request from Ukraine, and will join NATO’s trust fund for Ukraine.
‘Challenge to freedom’
Zelenskyy asked Yoon to boost military support when they first met in May. South Korea’s defence ministry has said it was discussing exporting ammunition to the US.
However, in May South Korea dismissed a US media report that its artillery rounds were heading to Ukraine via the US, saying its position on not providing lethal aid to Kyiv was unchanged.
“We view Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a challenge to the international community’s freedom, human rights and the rule of law,” Yoon said upon meeting Polish President Andrzej Duda on Thursday, adding that South Korea could be a good partner in rebuilding Ukraine.
South Korea’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said on Friday it planned to support the reconstruction of Ukraine’s infrastructure, such as transport, energy and industry.
South Korean companies and companies in Ukraine and other countries signed agreements on Friday to cooperate in the reconstruction of Ukraine, the ministry said in a statement.