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South Korea's Yoon pledges more military supplies, aid to Ukraine © Reuters. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol shake hands after a joint statement, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine July 15, 2023. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

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By Joyce Lee and Olena Harmash

SEOUL/KYIV (Reuters) -South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said on Saturday his country will provide a bigger batch of military supplies and humanitarian aid to Ukraine during a visit to Kyiv for a meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

The surprise trip came after Yoon attended a NATO alliance summit in Lithuania and visited Poland this week, where he expressed solidarity with Ukraine against Russia’s invasion.

South Korea is a U.S. ally and the world’s ninth biggest arms exporter, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) think tank. But it is also wary of Russia’s influence over North Korea and has been resisting Western pressure to help arm Ukraine directly.

In a press conference, Yoon said South Korea plans to provide “a larger scale of military supplies” to Ukraine this year, following last year’s provision of non-lethal supplies such as body armour and helmets. He did not give more details.

Yoon said South Korea also plans to provide Ukraine with $150 million in humanitarian aid this year, following about $100 million in 2022.

It would also cooperate with Kyiv in projects such as infrastructure construction, which can be backed by concessionary loans from South Korea, he said.

“We are discussing everything that is important for the normal and safe life of people,” Zelenskiy said, thanking Yoon for “powerful” support.

ZELENSKIY’S APPROVAL

Yoon’s office said he also visited Bucha and Irpin, small towns near the capital where Russian soldiers are accused of war crimes against civilians. Moscow denies that.

Yoon said this week his administration was preparing to send demining equipment and ambulances, following a request from Ukraine, and will join NATO’s aid fund for Ukraine.

Yoon’s visit is significant because few other Asian leaders have visited Ukraine, said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, the Korea chair at the Brussels School of Governance research organisation.

How much of a policy shift towards providing more support for Ukraine remains to be seen, he added, but the trip shows Kyiv’s approval for aid sent so far.

“If he’s going it’s because Zelenskiy allowed him to go, because he feels Korea is doing enough to warrant it,” Pacheco Pardo said, adding that it also suggested South Korea may be offering more support behind the scenes.

Zelenskiy asked Yoon to boost military support when they first met in May. Yoon said on Saturday South Korea has delivered safety equipment and humanitarian aid that Ukraine needs, since May, including mine detectors.

South Korea’s defence ministry has said it was discussing exporting ammunition to the U.S., but said parts of a media report that Seoul had agreed to send artillery rounds to the U.S. for delivery to Ukraine were inaccurate.

In 2022, South Korea’s arms sales jumped to more than $17 billion from $7.25 billion the year before, including a $13.7 billion arms deal with Poland – Seoul’s biggest ever – supplying rocket launchers and fighter jets.

South Korean companies and entities in Ukraine and in other countries signed agreements on Friday to help with reconstruction, Seoul’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said in a statement.

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