South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol arrives at Haneda International Airport in Tokyo with his wife, Kim Keon-hee, March 16, 2023.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol arrives at Haneda International Airport in Tokyo with his wife, Kim Keon-hee, March 16, 2023. (Akifumi Ishikawa/Stars and Stripes)

CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea — South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in an interview Wednesday offered some scenarios in which Seoul could provide Ukraine with lethal aid to fight its now 14-month-old war with Russia.

Yoon told the Reuters news agency that in the event of a “large-scale attack on civilians, massacre or serious violation of the laws of war” by Russia, it would “be difficult for us to insist only on humanitarian or financial support” to Ukraine.

According to the Reuters’ interview, Yoon said he believed “there won't be limitations to the extent of the support to defend and restore a country that's been illegally invaded.” But South Korea must “take the most appropriate measures” due to its relationship with other countries involved in the war, he added.

South Korea has pledged over $100 million in non-lethal aid to Ukraine in the form of vaccines, medical equipment, body armor and power generators since June, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Considering the growing suffering of the Ukrainian people and refugees due to the prolonged war, the Korean government will strive to deliver the additional aid as quickly as possible in hopes of relieving their pain,” the ministry said in a news release on April 20, 2022. "With the hope that the assistance will help relieve the suffering of Ukraine, the Korean government stands in solidarity with the people of Ukraine.”

Yoon has condemned the Russian invasion, but so far has publicly declined to send lethal aid directly to Ukraine. In an October speech, he cited Seoul’s “peaceful and good relations with all countries around the world.”

However, senior South Korean officials have privately explored ways to indirectly provide 155 mm artillery shells to Ukraine, according to news reports about leaked Defense Department intelligence data that included diplomatic communications.

One such report from South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo newspaper Wednesday said Seoul had agreed to lend 500,000 artillery shells to the United States in March.

South Korea’s trade policies state that exports must be for peaceful purposes and must not “affect international peace, safety maintenance, and national security.”

World leaders have publicly urged Yoon to boost his support for Ukraine. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Seoul needed to “step up” and that other like-minded nations, such as Germany and Sweden, have since altered their policies to send weapons to Kyiv.

“If you believe in freedom, if you believe in democracy, if you don't want autocracy and tyranny to win, then they need weapons,” Stoltenberg said during a Jan. 29 speech in Seoul. “That's the reality.”

Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental organization, in an April 2022 report documented cases in which Russian troops committed “laws-of-war violations against civilians in occupied areas” of Ukraine. Those cases included rape, summary executions and violence against civilians in a two-months span.

The U.N. Human Rights Monitoring Mission had recorded 13,560 civilian casualties by August, mission head Matilda Bogner said in a separate report.

“We reiterate our calls to the sides to take constant care to spare and protect civilians while hostilities are ongoing,” she said in an Aug. 24 U.N. news release.

David Choi is based in South Korea and reports on the U.S. military and foreign policy. He served in the U.S. Army and California Army National Guard. He graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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