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The Russia Factor in South Korea’s Arm Sales to Poland

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The Russia Factor in South Korea’s Arm Sales to Poland

A partisan divide over Seoul’s ties with Moscow could be exploited by Russia to complicate the burgeoning Poland-South Korea arms partnership.

The Russia Factor in South Korea’s Arm Sales to Poland

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (center left) and Polish President Andrzej Duda (center right) hold a summit at the Presidential Palace, Warsaw, Poland, July 13, 2023.

Credit: Office of the President, ROK/ Kim Yong Wii

The broad bipartisan consensus in South Korea over Poland’s importance as an arms purchaser stands out in Seoul’s otherwise bitterly-divided political scene. Arms sales to Poland are critical to Seoul’s ambitions to be a top global arms exporter. For Poland, meanwhile, South Korea’s top-notch defense technology, including K-2 tanks and Chunmoo rocket launchers, could be a major boost to Polish defenses.

Yet in addition to the uncertainty that continually plagues the viability of Poland-South Korea arms transactions at the bilateral level, Russia also has the potential to further complicate Korean arms sales to Poland through diplomatic pressure. South Korean policymakers must therefore seek a bipartisan understanding over the extent to which pursuing a defense partnership with Poland is worth the risk of further damaging ties with Moscow, lest the Kremlin attempt to undermine such transactions by taking advantage of partisan divides in South Korea over Seoul’s ties with the Russian Federation.

Deterring the threat from North Korea remains Seoul’s top defense priority, yet becoming a top player in the global arms market has taken increased importance for South Korea. President Yoon Suk-yeol hopes South Korea will become the fourth-largest arms exporter in the world by the end of his term.

Arms sales to Poland, as part of a broader defense export strategy directed toward Europe, are crucial to South Korea’s ambitions. Scholars from the Korea Development Institute have warned that a failure to secure deals over arms exports to Poland would hinder South Korea’s efforts to reach its goal of becoming a top arms supplier.

South Korea’s defense industry has long been inextricably linked with the country’s economic strategy as well as national defense. While Yoon’s emphasis on “shared values” with democratic countries no doubt in part drives South Korea’s increasing alignment with NATO, increased access to the European defense market certainly propels Seoul’s push for closer ties with the alliance as well.

Yet in spite of South Korea having found a willing customer in Poland, transactions between Seoul and Warsaw have hardly been smooth.

Concerns arose over Poland’s ability to finance extant deals worth $22 billion in late 2023, due to limits on the amount of credit South Korea could extend to Poland per the Export-Import Bank of Korea Act. At the time, Poland’s incoming Donald Tusk administration said it would review current contracts with South Korean defense companies. Ultimately, however, lawmakers in the South Korean National Assembly passed an amendment to the law increasing the permissible amount of financial assistance, seemingly smoothing the way for South Korean sales of weapons to Poland to continue.

Nevertheless, doubts over the prospects of future arms deals between Poland and South Korea have once again emerged, prompting Seoul and Warsaw to take steps to offset the most recent concerns. In March 2024, the two countries’ top diplomats reaffirmed their commitment to further cooperation over arms procurement, while the following month high-level Polish officials and the head of South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) held a meeting as part of a week-long visit by Polish delegates.

The repeated complications to the fulfillment of large-scale Poland-South Korea arms transactions do not bode well for South Korea as an arms supplier to Poland. Yet even if Seoul and Warsaw ultimately manage to overcome bilateral hurdles to further defense cooperation, Russia could also present challenges to future arms transactions.

In particular, Moscow may attempt to use the desire among broad sections of Seoul’s policy elite to maintain ties with Russia to curb South Korean arms sales to Poland and neighboring NATO allies.

Russia has not failed to take notice of Seoul’s increasing defense ties with Poland since Moscow’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Even as government-affiliated scholars in Moscow have argued that South Korea’s interest in selling weapons to Poland is purely commercial in nature, Russia’s former Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu went as far as to argue that South Korean arms sales to Poland could pose a threat to Russia.

Thus, despite the bipartisan consensus in Seoul that arms sales to countries such as Poland coincide with South Korea’s national interest, Russia could nevertheless leverage differences within South Korean policymaking circles to undermine further cooperation between Poland and South Korea.

Russia-South Korea ties, largely stable and amenable for the better part of the past three decades, have been under strain since 2022. Whereas Yoon has consistently supported Western efforts to assist Ukraine, several voices on the political left in South Korea’s lawmaking and policy analysis communities have cautioned against taking a hardline stance against Russia.

A common theme in discourse on the South Korean political left regarding ties with Russia is the need for Seoul to pursue a narrow “national interest,” as opposed to support for “shared values.” That narrower approach may not necessarily coincide with support for the West, particularly in light of the war in Ukraine. Furthermore, those who support maintaining ties with the Kremlin argue that it is in South Korea’s interest to leave the door open for economic cooperation with Russia as well as to position Seoul optimally in a revised, post-Ukraine War global order.

Moscow is certainly interested in driving a wedge between Seoul and the West over Ukraine, meaning that sentiments within Russian official circles that South Korean arms sales to Poland pose a threat to the Russian Federation could potentially inform the Kremlin’s policies toward Seoul. Increased weaponry exports, as part of the Yoon administration’s ambitions to turn South Korea into a “global pivotal state,” will invariably translate into growing pressure on Seoul for greater involvement in global security dynamics. That means South Korea will need to refine its messaging in terms of how its arms exports strategy plays into its relationships with actors such as Moscow.

Particularly given that South Korea has been subjected to Russian influence operations, the Kremlin may either attempt to convince elements of the South Korean policy elite that preserving relations with Moscow is more important than pursuing deals with Poland, or may even warn that large-scale arms sales to Warsaw could damage Russia-South Korea ties, as the Kremlin has done regarding South Korean weapons transfers to Ukraine.

South Korean policymakers on both ends of the political spectrum now have the opportunity (as well as the need) to define whether – or to what extent – continued arms sales to Poland and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe contribute to South Korea’s national interest compared with the risk of upsetting relations with Russia.

A bipartisan understanding may hold for now among South Korean policymakers that Seoul-Warsaw defense transactions constitute a clear national interest. Yet partisan differences in how Seoul’s ties with Russia coincide with the national interest provide potential leverage for the Kremlin to influence the course of Poland-South Korea arms sales. Thus, the time is now for South Korean policymakers across the political spectrum to clearly define how much they are willing to potentially upset ties with Russia for the sake of continued relations with Poland as a partner in arms transactions.