Should South Korea Enhance Its Role in the Eurasian Battlefield?

South Korean President Yun Suk-yeol and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 15, 2023. (Source: Republic of Korea Office of the President. Official Photographer: Kim Yong Wii)

As a new Cold War is forming, there is a growing concern that war is increasingly defining this era of international politics. Hot wars are already ongoing on two geopolitical fronts: Eurasia and the Middle East. In addition, cold battles are heating up in other geopolitical domains, such as the Indo-Pacific region.

As the Russia-Ukraine war enters into its third year of fighting, there is growing recognition that its outcome could have ripple effects well beyond its regional boundaries. It is not simply a military confrontation between two countries but is directly connected to international politics across the board, as well as security in other areas.

Given these stakes, the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) should consider evolving its support scheme for Ukraine in a comprehensive way to help preserve a liberal international order, and in the process, increase South Korea’s hard and soft power.

South Korea’s Approach to Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 led to South Korea joining international efforts to impose unprecedented and harsh sanctions against Russia. The ROK, sympathetic to Ukraine’s situation, has been providing Ukraine with humanitarian aid and nonlethal military supplies, such as helmets and mine detectors, but has refrained from providing direct lethal assets to the country due to domestic and diplomatic constraints. Ukraine’s military, however, appears to be using 155-mm shells that have been “indirectly” supplied by South Korea through Poland.

As the Russia-Ukraine war became a war of attrition, South Korea, like many countries, has also intensified humanitarian and indirect support to Kyiv. However, the international community’s enthusiasm to continue supporting Ukraine after its failed counter-offensive last year has waned.

Despite this trend, it would be a serious miscalculation for South Korea to reduce or stop its support to Ukraine. The Russia-Ukraine war is not simply a local war between the two actors but one with significant implications for security in other regions as well as for the international order.

How this war ends directly affects the feasibility of preserving a liberal international order. Moreover, if this war is not dealt with properly, the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific is most likely to be seriously challenged as well. For instance, China might take advantage of this chance to revise the regional order in its favor if Russia, a rule breaker, wins the war. Some signs of this already exist. In August 2023, with Russia’s territorial ambition continuing in the Eurasian battlefield, China redrew the nine-dash line to a 10-dash line. This remapping can be seen as Beijing’s attempt to revise a rules-based order managed by international organizations such as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. This opportunity only emerged due to a faltering rules-based order spurred by Russia’s continued war.

Most of all, under a complex crisis, a situation in Eurasian geopolitics is closely linked with the security situation on the Korean Peninsula. The ideological blocs forming under New Cold War alignments have created unique opportunities for North Korea to grow stronger both politically and militarily. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) has supported Russia, an invader, from the beginning, and is now reaping the benefits of this opportunity, including gaining at least some recognition as a nuclear power. To be more precise, North Korea’s willingness to provide Russia with shells and rockets has been reciprocated with new levels of military and technological cooperation, such as helping North Korea advance its spy satellite program to maximize its nuclear strategy. This growing partnership, spurred by the Russia-Ukraine war, poses a greater challenge to the maintenance of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula.

Seoul’s Choices Going Forward

Throughout the war, South Korea has worked to support Ukraine, although not in a lethal way. In July 2023, South Korea laid out a comprehensive aid package called the Ukraine Peace and Solidarity Initiative.[1] In February 2024, South Korea willingly joined the Multi-agency Donor Coordination Platform (MDCP) for Ukraine initiated by G7 and other agencies in 2023, which coordinates support for Ukraine’s immediate financing and future reconstruction needs.

Two years into the Russia-Ukraine war, however, South Korea should clarify its goals and, using the tools it has in its toolkit, design a comprehensive support architecture for Ukraine.

To start with, Seoul needs to adopt two goals: 1) helping Ukraine win the war and 2) helping the Ukrainian people prosper after the war.

South Korea should pay tremendous attention to helping Ukraine win the war because the rules-based international order is at stake. Russia’s invasion is clearly defined as revisionist behavior to break an international rule of sovereignty. Thus, if Russia wins the war, a rules-based order will be on the decline, and a power-based order will be on the rise.

Furthermore, preserving the liberty of a sovereign country is also in line with the Yoon administration’s value diplomacy.[2] Therefore, South Korea should start thinking of ways to better support Ukraine’s efforts, which could include the direct provision of lethal weapons.

Regarding the scope of assistance for Ukraine, South Korea should be ready to help rebuild Ukraine’s demolished infrastructure and promote the prosperity of Ukraine after the war ends. As we all know, South Korea was able to become a robust and developed country because the international community helped both defend it against North Korea and help rebuild it after the devastation of the Korean War; helping Ukraine in the same manner can reciprocate the generosity once provided to South Korea during its time of need.

Moreover, this combined approach—both bolstering fighting efforts and aiding the reconstruction once the war ends—matches the Yoon administration’s contribution-diplomacy.[3] To that end, South Korea needs to design and actively participate in stabilization and peace operations in Ukraine as well as post-conflict reconstruction projects.

How to achieve these two goals needs serious consideration. In particular, Seoul needs to take advantage of four major tools that it is already armed with. They are: 1) enhanced diplomatic capacity, 2) lessons learned, 3) infrastructure-building capacity, and 4) “K-defense.”

First, in terms of diplomatic capacity, South Korea should lead by example, continuing its support for Ukraine while taking advantage of its global leverage enhanced through the Yoon administration’s innovative diplomatic efforts, such as its own Indo-Pacific Strategy and Global Pivotal State (GPS) diplomacy.

Second, South Korea should leverage the lessons learned from the Korean War and the Vietnam War in how to grapple with the serious challenges of prolonged war. South Korea is fifth strongest military and 10th largest economic power in the world, as well as a consolidated democracy because it has been successful in tackling challenges such as peace talks and effective fighting.

Third, South Korea is also equipped with enormous infrastructure-building capacity. In the 1970s, South Korea contributed to building infrastructure in the Middle East and recently kicked off the upgraded infrastructure building project there. This know-how and capacity are expected to enhance post-war reconstruction performance. From 2004 to 2008, South Korea dispatched the Zaytun Division to Iraq and successfully achieved its mission to rebuild infrastructure in Erbil. The Zaytun project turned out a great success as residents in Erbil called the Zaytun Division “a gift from God.”[4] This know-how regarding infrastructure building can be effectively applied to the rebuilding project in Ukraine.

Finally, the Korea-tailored defense industry called “K-defense” can serve as a valuable asset for not only bolstering Ukraine’s warfighting capabilities, but also safeguarding the security of Ukraine after the war. South Korea is well poised to provide Ukraine with a wide range of compatible weapons systems. In particular, its K-defense production capabilities can be one of the fastest remedies to address Ukraine’s lack of ammunition. Furthermore, South Korea can help Ukraine protect itself after the war by exporting the most optimal weapons to Ukraine, such as surveillance assets and defense weapons.

Best of all, K-defense includes deep knowledge and experience in training and maintaining long-term military readiness and could dispatch training teams to Ukraine in the post-war period.


All in all, South Korea is well placed to play an enhanced role in helping support Ukraine through the war and post-war reconstruction period. What is uncertain, however, is South Korea’s willingness to do so and a detailed design for how it would accomplish this.

To that end, the South Korean government needs to better explain to its domestic audience why its enhanced role in Ukraine is necessary. In doing so, it can create a platform for coordinating efforts from civilian groups, big companies, and the government to improve the country’s ability to act efficiently and improve the prospects for success.

Furthermore, these efforts can be synergistically advantageous to South Korea as well. They create opportunities for South Korean companies to gain credibility in the region through massive investment. Moreover, they can enhance South Korea’s soft power beyond K-culture by making its contribution-diplomacy more recognized in the world.

  1. [1]

    For more detail on the Ukraine Peace and Solidary Initiative, see Sojung Yoon, “President Yoon makes surprise trip to Ukraine for summit,”, 17 July 17, 2023,

  2. [2]

    The “Yoon Suk Yeol Administration’s National Security Strategy” specifies its eagerness to strengthen a “value-based diplomatic partnership” with Europe. June 7, 2023, page 61,

  3. [3]

    On Korea’s 77th Liberation Day, President Yoon stressed, “Our independence movement must now contribute towards protecting and expanding the freedom of all global citizens who share such universal values.” See “Address by President Yoon Suk Yeol on Korea’s 77th Liberation Day,” ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, August 16, 2022,

  4. [4]

    See Jin Kim, “[Viewpoint] Koreans overcame past troubles,” Korea JoongAng Daily, December 29, 2008,

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