KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol made a surprise visit to Ukraine on Saturday, offering an apparent show of support for the country in its war with Russia.
Yoon’s office said he traveled to Ukraine with his wife, Kim Keon Hee, following trips to Lithuania for a NATO summit and to Poland. It’s his first visit since Russia invaded Ukraine almost 17 months ago.
Yoon toured Bucha and Irpin, a pair of small cities near Kyiv where bodies of civilians were found in the streets and mass graves after Russian troops retreated from the capital region last year. He laid flowers at a monument to the country's war dead.
The South Korean leader was scheduled to hold talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy later in the day, Yoon’s senior adviser for press affairs, Kim Eun-hye, said in a statement.
South Korea, a key U.S. ally in Asia, joined international sanctions against Russia and has provided Ukraine with humanitarian and financial support to Ukraine.
But the Asian nation, a growing arms exporter, has not provided weapons to Ukraine in line with its long-standing policy of not supplying arms to countries actively engaged in conflict.
Earlier this month, Yoon said in written responses to questions from The Associated Press that supplies of de-mining equipment, ambulances and other non-military materials “are in the works” following a request from Ukraine.
He said South Korea already provided support to replace the Kakhovka Dam, which was destroyed last month. The Russian and Ukrainian governments have accused the other of blowing up the dam, but the evidence suggests Russia had more of a motive to cause deadly flooding, endanger crops and threaten drinking water supplies in a contested part of Ukraine.
“The government of the Republic of Korea is firmly committed to actively joining the United States and other liberal democracies in international efforts to defend the freedom of Ukraine,” Yoon said in written responses to the AP.
During a January visit to South Korea, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called for the country to provide direct military support to Ukraine, saying Kyiv was in urgent need of weapons to fight off the prolonged Russian invasion.
In May, when Yoon met Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska in Seoul, the president said he would expand South Korea's non-lethal aid to Ukraine. Yoon’s spokesperson, Lee Do Woon, said at the time that Zelenska made no request for South Korean weapons supplies during her conversation with Yoon.
Since Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, South Korea has reached billions of dollars worth of deals to provide tanks, howitzers, fighter jets and other weapons systems to NATO member Poland.
An American official said in November that the United States had agreed to buy 100,000 artillery rounds from South Korean manufacturers to provide to Ukraine, although South Korean officials have maintained that the munitions were meant to refill depleted U.S. stocks.
Yoon and Zelenskyy met in May on the sidelines of a Group of Seven industrialized nations summit in Hiroshima, Japan. Zelensky thanked South Korea for its humanitarian shipments of medicines, computers and generators and requested additional provisions of non-lethal items, Yoon’s office said at the time.
The two leaders also agreed to work to assist South Korean companies taking part in post-war reconstruction projects in Ukraine, according to Yoon’s office.
Yoon and his wife's visit came two days after Russia launched another barrage of Iranian-made drones at the Kyiv region. Ukrainian officials said their air defenses intercepted the drones but that wreckage fell on four districts of the capital, wounding two people and destroying several homes.
Although Kyiv did not come under attack in the hours before the South Korean president's arrival, Ukrainian forces on Friday and overnight downed 10 Russian drones across the country, the Ukrainian air force reported Saturday.
In a Telegram post, the air force added that Moscow fired six Iranian-made Shahed drones at Ukraine’s south and east during the night, four of which were shot down. It did not immediately give details of any casualties or damage.
In southern Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia province, where Ukraine has been engaged in a counteroffensive to take back occupied territory, there were 45 air and artillery attacks between Friday and Saturday, Gov. Yurii Malashka reported.
Russian forces shelled neighboring Kherson province 70 times over the same period, using mortars, artillery, drones, tanks, aviation and multiple rocket launchers, Gov. Oleksandr Prokudin said Saturday. No civilians were wounded, he said.
Russian shelling over the past day killed one civilian in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk province, Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko reported Saturday. Ukrainain forces have been pressing their counteroffensive in the area, inching their way from Velyka Novosilka down toward the Russian-occupied city of Mariupol.