SEOUL, April 12 (Reuters) – South Korea has reached an agreement to lend the United States 500,000 rounds of 155mm 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 unidentified government sources as saying South Korea decided to “lend” the ammunition instead of selling, to minimise the possibility of South Korean shells being used in the Ukraine conflict.
South Korea’s defence ministry said the allies have been exploring ways to support Ukraine but declined to confirm specific discussions.
The U.S. State Department did not immediately offer comment.
The report came after leaked highly classified U.S. military documents highlighted South Korea’s difficulties dealing with pressure from Western allies to help with the supply of military aid to Ukraine.
South Korea, a key U.S. ally and major producer of artillery ammunition, says it cannot provide lethal weapons to Ukraine, citing its own security situation amid evolving nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.
The newspaper said the shells would be used primarily by the United States to fill its stockpile.
Having bought 100,000 such 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.
“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,” one source was quoted as saying.
The article did not provide details on the workings of the “rental menthod”.
Both Seoul and Washington have confirmed they were negotiating an artillery supply deal, but there has been no official word on whether an agreement was finalised. The newspaper said the agreement was reached last month.
Foreign Minister Park Jin told reporters that he could not confirm the newspaper report, but added that the government position against providing lethal aid to Ukraine remained unchanged.
‘GRAPPLED WITH REQUEST’
South Korea’s Yoon, 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 but would expand humanitarian assistance instead.
The country’s assistance to Ukraine was included in classified documents that were leaked online this year and spotlighted in reporting during the last week.
In the documents, top South Korean presidential officials worried about a plan to sell shells to Washington, saying they might be diverted to Ukraine despite Seoul’s position that the U.S. military should be the “end user”.
One leaked bulletin, marked “Top Secret” and seen by Reuters, said Seoul as of early March “grappled with the U.S. request to provide artillery ammunition to Ukraine”.
Former national security adviser Kim Sung-han “suggested the possibility of selling the 330,000 rounds of 155mm munitions to Poland, since getting the ammunition to Ukraine quickly was the ultimate goals of the United States”, it said.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the authenticity of the documents. U.S. officials have said some appeared to have been modified.
Seoul and Washington were scrambling to contain the fallout of the leak, amid suspicions the U.S. could have been spying on South Korea, one of its most important allies.
Speaking at a parliamentary session, Foreign Minister Park said unauthorised wiretapping would be considered “problematic” but declined to comment when asked if the U.S. confirmed to South Korea that there was no spying on its presidential office.
“We have asked the U.S. via diplomatic channel to share with us exactly what happened and what has been confirmed,” the foreign minister said.
Park said he was first briefed on the suspected leak of U.S. documents on the weekend following media reports.