Putin Threatens South Korea: Arming Ukraine Would Be a ‘Very Big Mistake’

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Alexei Babushkin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Russian strongman Vladimir Putin said South Korea deciding to offer weapons aid to Ukraine would be a “very big mistake,” threatening “respective decisions” that would anger Seoul in remarks on Thursday responding to South Korea announcing it would consider arming Ukraine.

South Korean officials announced the decision to reconsider its current stance of only providing humanitarian aid and reconstructive assistance following Putin’s visit to North Korea, where he signed a mutual defense treaty that bound Russia to defend Pyongyang in the event of an attack. Putin made a surprise visit to North Korea on Tuesday and Wednesday in which communist dictator Kim Jong-un welcomed him with lavish festivities and gifted him two Pungsan hunting dogs.

North Korea had once maintained a similar mutual defense treaty with the fallen Soviet Union, but Russia had not taken measures to commit to military intervention in defense of the rogue communist state until this week.

North Korea and South Korea have formally been in a state of war for 74 years. The Korean War – in which China and the United States are also belligerent parties – began in 1950 and its active hostilities ceased with an armistice agreement in 1953, but neither side surrendered or signed a peace treaty. As a result, Russia committing to military defense of North Korea could potentially make it a party to the Korean War, alarming Seoul.

Conversely, North Korea’s commitment to Russia could make it a player in the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, as the Ukrainian military has in recent months attempted to expand its attacks into Russian territory.

Putin confirmed while in Pyongyang this week that the new agreement with Pyongyang “provides for mutual assistance in the event of aggression against one of the parties to this treaty.”

The South Korean government summoned Russia’s ambassador to Seoul to protest the treaty and said it had “grave concern” that Russia’s support of communist North Korea could exacerbate already mounting tensions between the two Koreas.

“The government expresses grave concern and condemns the signing of the comprehensive strategic partnership agreement between North Korea and Russia, which aims to strengthen mutual military and economic cooperation,” South Korean National Security Advisor Chang Ho-jin told reporters on Thursday. In response to Russia’s actions, Chang said, South Korea would “reconsider the issue of arms support to Ukraine.”

“Specific measures will be revealed later, and it will be interesting to see how Russia responds, rather than revealing our plans in advance,” Chang added.

The South Korean news service Yonhap reported that Seoul also implemented several new sanctions on Russia in response to the Ukraine invasion this week.

Putin’s remarks in Vietnam were in response to Chang’s announcement.

“As for the supply of lethal weapons to the combat zone in Ukraine, it would be a very big mistake,” Putin told reporters during his brief stay in Hanoi, according to Russian media. “I hope it will not happen. If it does, then we too will then make the respective decisions, which South Korea’s current leadership is unlikely to be pleased with.”

“We reserve our right to supply weapons to other regions of the world,” Putin said, which some news outlets interpreted as a threat to arm North Korea.

South Korean President Yoon, a hardline conservative, has been vocally supportive of Ukraine in the ongoing conflict. Yoon made a surprise visit to Kyiv in July 2023 in which he met with President Volodymr Zelensky and offered Korean infrastructure expertise, first-aid equipment, and other non-lethal aid. Yoon also announced $150 million in humanitarian aid.

“We need a new large-scale rehabilitation industry. I invited the Republic of Korea to show leadership in creating rehabilitation centers in Ukraine,” Zelensky said at the time.

Seoul appeared to back down from its threat to arm Ukraine, at least for now, in comments to reporters on Friday. The South Korean news outlet Yonhap quoted an anonymous Yoon official stating that Seoul was merely looking at “various options.”

“There are various options for providing weapons, and our position on the recent developments between Russia and North Korea depends on how Russia approaches the situation going forward,” the unnamed official said.

Putin’s surprise visit to Pyongyang, which followed a personal invitation from dictator Kim Jong-un in September, followed a particularly tense month in inter-Korean relations. Communist North Korea began flying balloons carrying trash and feces into the South in May, allegedly in response to a South Korean Supreme Court decision that undid a ban on South Koreans flying balloons carrying political messages and humanitarian aid into the North. South Korean officials vowed an “unbearable” response to the North before installing a loudspeaker on the border and playing popular songs by superstar South Korean boy band BTS into the North in early June. While the loudspeaker has played only once, Seoul officials have threatened to once again broadcast content not approved by the communists North into the country.

Tension of the border have also worsened as a result of multiple incidents in which North Korean soldiers have illegally crossed south. South Korean military officials called the first such incident a “simple mistake,” but two other such incidents have since occurred. The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff called all three incidents accidental.

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