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South Korea leaves door open to sending weapons to Ukraine


SEOUL — South Korea left the door open to reconsidering Seoul’s prohibition against sending weapons to Ukraine, with Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup saying Tuesday that he was aware of the “need for the international effort” and that his government was “directing our close attention” to the situation.

Lee’s remarks, in a news conference here with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, came a day after NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urged South Korea to change its policy of exporting defense goods “only for peaceful purposes.”

Countries such as Germany, Norway and others, Stoltenberg said during his own visit here Monday, had changed their stance “because they realized that when you are facing a brutal invasion where a big power — Russia — invades another one in a blatant way as we have seen in Ukraine, if we believe in freedom, if we believe in democracy, if we don’t want autocracy and tyranny to win, then they need weapons.”

South Korea has provided humanitarian and other nonlethal assistance directly to Ukraine. The United States has said North Korea is sending missiles to Russia to supplement its waning supplies.

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Seoul was Austin’s first stop on a Pacific swing, to be followed by a two-day visit to the Philippines, where the United States hopes to secure access to key bases to provide strategic positions from which to mount operations in the event of a conflict in Taiwan or the South China Sea.

The trip, Austin’s sixth to the region and third to South Korea, is part of an overall effort to expand Washington’s Indo-Pacific alliances and partnerships as China has increased what a senior defense official called its “sharp uptick in destabilizing … behavior,” including air-to-air intercepts and maritime challenges.

Threats from China, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about policy matters, are compounded by increased provocation from North Korea, which conducted an unprecedented number of ballistic missile tests last year and has promised this year to expand its nuclear program.

“Together, we condemn these dangerous actions, which violate international law and threaten to destabilize the region,” Austin said of Pyongyang.

He noted that the Biden administration has increased readiness here by “expanding the scope and scale” of combined exercises with South Korean forces, including plans to return to live-fire exercises suspended by the Trump administration.

Last year, “we deployed assets including F-22s, F-35s and the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group,” Austin said. “We have 28,500 uniformed personnel in South Korea … one of the largest U.S. troop deployments around the world.”

But the secretary sidestepped a question about remarks early this month by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol that Seoul might need nuclear weapons of its own or would demand redeployment of U.S. nuclear arms on the Korean Peninsula in light of the growing North Korean threat.

Without directly commenting on Yoon’s remarks, Lee said the policy of “extended deterrence” means that even if North Korea does “use their nuclear capabilities, [South] Korea and the United States have the capability to deter their efforts, and also that the United States has the will to deter nuclear weapons.”

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The Biden administration has sought to discourage any suggestion that South Korea would develop its own nuclear arsenal, emphasizing that the U.S. defense commitment to Seoul is sacrosanct and sufficient.

It “includes the full range of U.S. defense capabilities, including our conventional, nuclear and missile defense capabilities,” Austin said. The commitment, he said, is “ironclad.”

“It’s not a slogan, it’s what we’re all about.”

Polling has indicated development of a South Korean nuclear deterrent is popular here, but “mainstream politicians have largely stayed away from advocating proliferation,” Stephen Herzog, a senior researcher in nuclear arms control at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, wrote last week in a commentary for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But increased activities by Pyongyang allow Yoon to “brandish the national security card” and appeal to nationalist sentiment to increase South Korea’s independence from the United States, Herzog said.

Austin and Lee each emphasized the importance they place on new levels of defense cooperation with Japan. “Let me underscore our mutual belief that trilateral cooperation with Japan enhances all of our security,” Austin said.

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.