© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: 155mm artillery shells await further processing at the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant in Scranton, Pennsylvania, U.S., February 16, 2023. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea reached an agreement last month to lend the United States 500,000 rounds of 155 mm artillery shells that could give Washington greater flexibility to supply Ukraine with ammunition, a South Korean newspaper reported on Wednesday.
The DongA Ilbo newspaper cited unnamed government sources saying that South Korea decided to “lend” the ammunition instead of selling in order to minimise the possibility of South Korean shells being used in the Ukraine conflict.
It said the loaned shells would be used primarily by the United States to fill its stockpile.
Having bought 100,000 rounds of the shells last year, the U.S. government had asked to buy the same amount or more in February, but the South Korean government sought another way to supply the ammunition to its ally.
“We’ve opted to significantly increase the volume of shells but take the rental method, after exploring how to respond to the request of the blood ally in good faith while sticking to the government principle of not providing lethal weapons to Ukraine,” an unnamed source was quoted as saying.
Both Seoul and Washington have previously confirmed that they were negotiating an artillery supply deal, but there has been no official word on whether any agreement was finalised.
South Korea’s defence ministry said the allies have been exploring ways to support Ukraine to help defend its freedom but declined to confirm specific discussions.
The U.S. State Department did not immediately offer comment.
Foreign Minister Park Jin told reporters that he could not confirm the newspaper report, but added that the government position against providing lethal aid for Ukraine remains unchanged, Yonhap news agency said.
The report came after leaked highly classified U.S. military documents highlighted South Korea’s difficulties squaring pressure from western allies to help with the supply of military aid to Ukraine and its own policy of staying out of the conflict.
South Korea is a key U.S. ally and major producer of artillery ammunition, but has sought to avoid antagonising Russia in light of economic ties and Moscow’s influence over North Korea.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who is visiting Washington this month for a summit with U.S. President Joe Biden, has said Seoul had not provided any lethal weapons to Ukraine and would expand humanitarian assistance instead.