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S. Korea vows strong Ukraine ties, smooth Russia relations

People at a Seoul railway station walk past a screen carrying live footage of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol's Thursday press conference
People at a Seoul railway station walk past a screen carrying live footage of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol's Thursday press conference - Copyright AFP Jung Yeon-je
People at a Seoul railway station walk past a screen carrying live footage of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol's Thursday press conference - Copyright AFP Jung Yeon-je

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said Thursday that Seoul would keep strong ties with Ukraine and a “smooth” relationship with Russia, while ruling out direct weapon shipments to Kyiv.

As a major arms exporter, Seoul has long been asked by US and European allies to do more to help Kyiv, with speculation that South Korea would change longstanding policy due to North Korea’s alleged arms transfers to Russia for use in Ukraine.

But Yoon told reporters it was his “firm stance” not to provide lethal weapons to countries in conflict.

Yoon said his country was doing its “best to provide humanitarian and reconstruction assistance, in accordance with the spirit of the constitution”.

Yoon said his country’s ties with Moscow had been strained by what Seoul and ally Washington say are arms shipments from North Korea to Russia.

“North Korea’s export of offensive weapons not only supports the illegal waging of war in relation to Ukraine, but also clearly violates UN Security Council sanctions resolutions related to North Korea’s nuclear weapons,” Yoon said. 

Despite tensions with Moscow over the purported arms shipments, Yoon said he would work with Russia.

“Russia is a country with which we have had a good relationship for a long time,” he said.

“Due to the recent war with Ukraine, we have different positions regarding the introduction of weapons from North Korea,” he added.

“As for our relationship with Russia, we will cooperate on a case-by-case basis, and we may oppose or be wary depending on differences in position, but we will manage our relationship with Russia as smoothly as possible.”

Seoul has long sought to join the ranks of the world’s top arms exporters — aiming to be the fourth largest, behind the United States, Russia and France — something that is now possible, industry research indicates.

It has also sold artillery shells to Washington — but with a “final user” agreement in place meaning only the United States can use the munitions.

Experts have said this allows the United States to then provide their own shells to Kyiv.

– Birthrate ministry –

Speaking at his first press conference in nearly two years, the president, whose party suffered a drubbing in legislative elections last month, also unveiled plans to create a new ministry to deal with the country’s sharply declining birthrate.

Yoon, whose party does not control the country’s parliament, said he would ask lawmakers to cooperate “to set up the Ministry of Low Birth Rate Counter Planning”, he said in a live address to the nation. 

South Korea’s birth rate fell to a record low last year, official data shows, despite having poured billions of dollars into efforts to encourage women to have more children and maintain population stability.

The country’s fertility rate -– the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime -– dropped to 0.72 in 2023, down nearly eight percent from 2022, according to preliminary data from Statistics Korea in February.

That is far below the 2.1 children needed to maintain the current population of 51 million, which at these rates will nearly halve by the year 2100, experts estimate.

At the rare press conference, the president also issued an apology for what he called the “unwise conduct” of his wife, first lady Kim Keon Hee, after hidden camera footage last year appeared to show her accepting a luxury handbag in violation of government ethics rules.

South Korea’s political opposition dismissed the president’s press conference, held to mark his second year in office, as being “filled with self-praise”.

The president “still has no clue as to why nearly 70 percent of the public disapprove of his governing style,” the spokesman of the Democratic party Han Min-soo said, referring to Yoon’s approval ratings, which have typically hovered around 30 percent.

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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