By Josh Smith and Joyce Lee SEOUL (Reuters) -South Korea’s government approved export licenses for Poland last year to provide Ukraine with Krab howitzers, which are built with South Korean components, a defence acquisition official in Seoul told Reuters on Wednesday. The comments are the first confirmation that South Korea officially acquiesced to at least […]
Exclusive-Seoul approved Poland’s export of howitzers with S.Korean parts to Ukraine, official says
By Josh Smith and Joyce Lee
SEOUL (Reuters) -South Korea’s government approved export licenses for Poland last year to provide Ukraine with Krab howitzers, which are built with South Korean components, a defence acquisition official in Seoul told Reuters on Wednesday.
The comments are the first confirmation that South Korea officially acquiesced to at least indirectly providing weapons components to Ukraine for its war against Russia.
Seoul officials have previously declined to comment on the Krabs, fuelling speculation over whether South Korea had formally agreed or was simply looking the other way.
The Defense Acquisition Program Administration’s (DAPA) technology control bureau reviewed and approved the transfer of the howitzer’s South Korean-made chassis, said Kim Hyoung-cheol, director of the Europe-Asia division of the International Cooperation Bureau.
“We reviewed all the documentation and possible issues inside DAPA… then we made decision to give out export license to Poland,” he told Reuters in an interview at DAPA headquarters on the outskirts of Seoul.
He later stressed that the government’s stance is to not transfer weapons systems to Ukraine.
South Korea’s defense ministry noted that the Krab is made up of components from several countries, and that the transfer did not involve a complete South Korean weapons system.
Produced by Poland’s Huta Stalowa Wola, the Krab is a self-propelled howitzer made by combining a South Korean K9 Thunder chassis, British BAE Systems turret, French Nexter Systems 155mm gun, and a Polish fire control system.
Following Russia’s invasion in February last year, Poland sent 18 Krabs to Ukraine in May, and the two countries have signed orders for dozens more.
Russia calls the war a “special military operation”, and President Vladimir Putin last year accused Seoul of providing Ukraine with weapons, saying such a decision would destroy their bilateral relations.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said at the time that South Korea, a U.S. ally, had not provided any weapons. His administration says it has no plans to change that policy.
Yoon has said South Korean law makes it difficult to directly sell weapons to countries in active conflict. Seoul has also been reluctant to anger Russia despite growing pressure from the United States and NATO countries to provide weapons and ammunition.
“We obviously think South Korea should be doing more, and we have been communicating that to the Yoon administration regularly,” a Western diplomatic source in Seoul told Reuters.
During a visit to Seoul in January, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged South Korea to increase military support to Ukraine, citing other countries that have changed their policy of not providing weapons to countries in conflict following Russia’s invasion.
The head of DAPA has the right to decide what to export, but in practice it’s up to the president’s will as well, said Yang Uk, research fellow and defence expert at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
“A government has to consider all positions including the foreign ministry’s position, diplomacy, as well as economic considerations,” he said. “If Korea supports Ukraine, Russia may retaliate by selling up-to-date aircraft to North Korea or transfer technology that North Korea really needs.”
South Korea has benefited from Europe’s rush to rearm, signing a massive $5.8 billion arms deal with Poland last year for hundred of Chunmoo rocket launchers, K2 tanks, K9 self-propelled howitzers, and FA-50 fighter aircraft.
Kim said Poland would need further South Korean permission to provide any of those new weapons to Ukraine. DAPA officials previously stressed that those sales are for boosting Poland’s defences, rather than helping Ukraine.
South Korea’s sensitivity over the issue has been highlighted by a deal to sell 155mm artillery shells to the United States. Officials in Washington have said they want to send the ammunition to Ukraine, but South Korea insists that the United States must be the end user.
A spokesman for South Korea’s ministry of defence said negotiations for that deal are ongoing.
(Reporting by Josh Smith and Joyce Lee; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)
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