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South Korea Steps Up
August 14, 2023
On July 15, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol visited Kyiv for the first time to pledge support for Ukraine’s battle against Russia — two weeks before the 70th anniversary of the armistice that ended the brutal Korean War that killed millions and still separates the Korean people. This was significant on a number of levels. Putin’s hero, Joseph Stalin, instigated the Korean conflict in 1950 by helping North Korea invade the South, and Putin has warned South Korea against getting involved in Ukraine. After President Yeol’s visit, he dispatched his Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu to Pyongyang to pledge undying support for North Korea’s fanatical leader Kim Jong Un. But South Korea has now stepped up, with an economy the size of Canada’s, the 8th biggest army in the world with 550,000 active personnel, and one of the world’s largest ammunition and weaponry industries. Seoul has been exporting military wares to the United States and Poland for re-export to Ukraine since the invasion, but now officially joins Ukraine’s alliance. And the world, the war, and Asia will never be the same.
South Korea, like Ukraine, is a victim of Russian expansion and its ally North Korea continues to terrorize its neighborhood. For 1,000 years, Koreans shared their peninsula with the Chinese until Japan declared war, annexed it, and occupied it until 1945. That year, a deal was struck to divide Korea along its 38th parallel, with the Soviet Union as trustee of its North and the United States, its South. But in 1950, Soviet-backed North Korea invaded. The United Nations condemned the incursion and troops from 22 countries fought to liberate the South. The war killed 1.2 million soldiers and civilians, and destroyed cities without much territorial gain by the North. It ended in a truce in 1953 that created a De-Militarized Zone separating the two. Technically, both are still officially at war and 28,500 American troops remain stationed in South Korea.
South Korea’s bold, new support for Ukraine is risky. In April, Russian politician and former President Dmitry Medvedev stated that Moscow will supply Pyongyang with the latest technology for its nuclear weapons if Seoul were to support Ukraine militarily. Undaunted, South Korea’s major ammunition maker immediately increased supplies to Europe, mostly to Poland, to replenish supplies it had sent to Ukraine. Seoul has also “loaned” the United States 500,000 rounds of 155mm artillery shells to replenish its stores sent to Ukraine. Last year, South Korea sold $13.7 billion worth of tanks, jets, and other arms to alliance members, and will sell billions more in equipment and ammunition this year.
The two Koreas are divided by much more than a De-Militarized Zone. The North is impoverished and run by a maniac while the South, referred to as the “Miracle on the Han River”, transformed itself from postwar poverty into one of the world’s most vibrant and wealthy nations. The United Nations, United States, and others provided a “Marshall Plan” to help the country rebuild its infrastructure and reimagine its institutions and Koreans did the rest. The nation has invested in its people and now has the highest proportion of people with tertiary degrees in the world. That, plus flows of foreign investment because of its storied national work ethic, has helped South Korea build world-class technological, engineering, electronic, automotive, manufacturing, financial, and entertainment industries. Along the way, its 51.74 million people have also democratized their country, staunched corruption, and held in check the power of gigantic conglomerates, known as chaebols.
North Korea, however, remains a constant and nagging issue for all Koreans and a reunification movement exists. One former President suggested that a reunification tax be levied and set aside to rebuild North Korea once it is liberated. But that is unlikely as long as Russia props up Kim Jong Un. And polls show that older Koreans seek reunification, but younger Koreans are indifferent and don’t regard it as a priority. However, there is unanimity when it comes to increasing South Korea’s military strength and possibly toward becoming a nuclear power.
What’s interesting is that the new public show of support for Ukraine is, in part, due to weeks of effort by a South Korean soldier, Sgt Kim Jae-kyung. He volunteered to fight in Ukraine’s International Legion after the 2022 invasion, and returned home to campaign on behalf of its struggle. He has conducted a one-man crusade by camping outside government offices and embassies in Seoul to plead for the government, and other nations, to help expel Russia from Ukraine altogether. In an interview, he explained that after South Korea was invaded in 1950 by the Soviets and North Korean regime, 22 countries and the UN saved it from capture. Now, he said, South Korea must help Ukraine against the same enemy because “we are lucky enough to now be the 10th most prosperous country in the world, because of the foreign soldiers who shed their blood and sweat for our country.”
South Korea’s President visited the sites outside Kyiv where war crimes and atrocities were committed by Russia, and also went to Poland where he expressed solidarity with Ukraine. There was no swagger or strut, but a muted visit by the leader of a country that hasn’t forgotten its debts, its principles, and now takes its place as one of the world’s most important, democratic nation-states. South Korea’s step-up benefits NATO and helps to shift power against Russia’s North Korea and China’s ambitions in southeast Asia.