South Korea Dares Putin to Work with North Korea

He is caught in a trap of his own making.

Shankar Narayan
6 min readJun 23, 2024

Struggling to supply ammunition to his ill-prepared army, Vladimir Putin has been tightening his relationships with North Korea and Iran, as he continues to seek sustained supplies around the world. Except for Iran and North Korea, no country is willing to send lethal weapons to Russia.

The Chinese are helping but they are too fearful of taking the direct lethal support route. They are not interested in riling up Europe, their biggest trading partner, in order to help Putin win his war. They will continue to straddle the middle.

The Kremlin claimed last year that their weapons production capacity was so strong that the entire West would be unable to match their prowess. That was never true. In terms of timelines, yes, as a dictatorship, Moscow did have the ability to speed things up. Europe and the United States have always been slow to react, a problem that will never go away.

However, once the Western machine starts to grind, it does have the power to overcome anything in its path. The grinder has started to churn, and the results are beginning to show. Running low on heavy weapons, Kremlin is scrambling to keep the ammunition flowing to its army. But so far he has managed to find only two dictatorships to supply weapons to his army.

Putin’s recent state visit to North Korea resulted in the revival of a treaty that had been abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

North Korea and Russia have now agreed to provide military assistance to each other in case of armed aggression. They have also agreed to cooperate on nuclear energy, space exploration, food, and energy security.

For obvious reasons, Russia and North Korea were vague on the details. What kind of nuclear energy cooperation are we talking about? And why does North Korea, a nation with 25 million people and a GDP of just $40 billion in 2015, want to explore space? Food and energy security are completely understandable, but nuclear energy and space exploration?

That sounds like a code word for missile technology transfer. Despite the deal, Putin openly threatened South Korea, warning them not to help Ukraine.

“If South Korea supplies weapons to Ukraine, it will not like the answer. I hope they won’t do it, it would be a big mistake,” Putin said at a press conference

But that was enough for South Korea to fire a warning shot to Russian President Vladmir Putin.

National security adviser Chang Ho-jin said Sunday that South Korea will not be bound by anything with regard to its assistance to Ukraine if Russia provides North Korea with precision weapons.

Director of National Security Chang made the remark during a TV appearance, underscoring the point that Seoul’s decision on whether to provide weapons to Ukraine depends on how Russia’s military cooperation with North Korea goes.

“I would like to emphasize that it all depends on what Russia will do,” Chang said on KBS TV. “Will there be any line remaining for us if Russia gives precision weapons to North Korea?”

That was a fair counter-response to Putin’s warning to South Korea. However, if South Korea adopts a wait, watch, and respond approach, there is an extremely high likelihood that Putin will end up playing them for time. He will receive North Korea’s supplies now and help them after the war is over.

How is South Korea planning to stop this if Putin starts transferring high-end technology in two years? There is no way they can stop it. They need to scrutinize the deal the two sides have signed and the kind of support North Korea has already offered Putin. I hope they do not make the same mistake that Israel made and continues to make.

The Putin-Iran integration is already a done deal. Israel could have helped Ukraine in many ways, helped them win the war, and brought this growing nexus down. But they did not. They are paying a heavy price now, and their selfishness will come back to haunt them. Iran will be much more powerful with Russian technology in the future. How is Israel planning to stop it? They can’t. They will have to live with it.

The same applies to South Korea. If they do not want North Korea to become stronger in terms of military and technology, the only way to stop that from happening is by helping Ukraine.

This is national security 101. What Israel and South Korea need to understand is that Russia has valuable military assets and is now extremely dependent on Iran and North Korea. At some point in the future, or perhaps already, that dependency will translate into military and technological benefits for Iran and North Korea.

Waiting it out is not going to make things better. Waiting it out is going to make things worse.

Didn’t Israel see that there is a factory inside Russia where Iranians are helping the Russians manufacture drones? Is national security so simplistic that the Israeli government thinks Iran will gain nothing from Russia that will hurt them in the future? What is the point of planning covert operations to stall Iran’s nuclear program when they are tightening their relationship with Russia, which has one of the largest nuclear arsenals in the world?

The Israeli government has buried its head in the sand and refuses to lift it. I sincerely hope South Korea does not repeat the same mistake.

South Korea has so far only supplied non-lethal aid to Kyiv. Bound by its Foreign Trade Act, the country cannot export weapons except for “peaceful purposes.”

If Seoul supplies Kyiv directly with weapons, it would be a radical shift in the country’s longstanding policy to only export arms to countries in peacetime.

It is still too early to make a definitive assessment that Seoul will supply weapons to Ukraine. They are responding to Putin’s verbal threats with their own. The best response would be to sign a similar treaty with Ukraine. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, after all.

However, if Seoul does take the sensible decision to start supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia, it has the potential to change many things on the ground.

South Korea has one of the largest stockpiles of 155mm artillery shells. According to the Center for Strategic & International Studies, South Korea has a production capacity of 200,000 shells annually. They alone can take care of one month’s shell requirement for Ukraine. That is significant, and we are only talking about monthly production capacity.

If they are manufacturing 200,000 shells per month, it is likely that they have millions in their warehouse. South Korea has indeed played a small role in this war. They have sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine and were part of the round-trip shell transfer to Ukraine through the United States.

Their Foreign Trade Act prohibits them from sending weapons to countries at war, but they can send them to nations that are not at war. In April 2023, South Korea sent 300,000 artillery shells to the United States to ensure that American supplies didn’t run dry due to their massive shipments to Ukraine.

So, it would be a bit unfair to compare them to Israel. I am somewhat confident that South Korea has started to think about its response. It has only been a few days since Russia and North Korea signed their “brothers in arms” treaty.

The war against Ukraine continues to turn the world against Russia.

Due to fear of retaliatory actions by Russia, the two Nordic countries, Finland and Sweden, kept NATO at arm’s length. Now they are NATO members.

Putin’s support for Iran has made it extremely clear to Israel that there will be no future for Israel-Russia relations. Putin will try to tap dance in the middle and continue his customary balancing act. But common Israelis would have seen who this man is, and future governments will be under intense scrutiny regarding Russia relations.

By tightening his relationship with North Korea, Putin has riled up Japan and South Korea — two peaceful powers that desperately try to keep themselves away from global geopolitical turbulence. They are changing, and they will continue to evolve in a direction that the Kremlin will not like.

By turning Russia into a vassal for China, Putin has turned off the money spigot from India that has sustained his defense industrial complex for decades. The fifth largest economy in the world is forcefully moving away from Russian weapons.

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Shankar Narayan

He didn't care what he had or what he had left, he cared only about what he must do.