By Josh Smith and Mike Stone
SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Washington wants to buy South Korean artillery shells to send to Ukraine, a U.S. official said on Friday, even as Seoul insisted that the United States must be the ammunition’s end user and that its policy against lethal aid for Ukraine is unchanged.
The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations, confirmed that Washington wanted to send South Korean 155mm artillery shells to Ukraine.
The official said that Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI) funds could be used to purchase the ammunition, but that it was unclear whether it would be shipped though U.S. territory.
South Korea’s defence ministry, however, said that its position of not providing lethal aid to Ukraine is unchanged and that the negotiations are being conducted “under the premise that the U.S. is the end user.”
“In order to make up for the shortage of 155mm ammunition inventories in the U.S., negotiations are ongoing between the U.S. and Korean companies to export ammunition,” the ministry said in a statement.
The U.S. official warned that news of the talks could threaten the deal.
A U.S. ally, South Korea has sought to avoid antagonizing Russia, both for economic reasons and because of the influence that Moscow can exert with North Korea.
Citing U.S. officials familiar with the deal, the Wall Street Journal said the agreement would involve 100,000 rounds of 155mm artillery rounds that would be delivered to Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called on South Korea to provide weapons, which he said would be “indispensable”.
Last month South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said Seoul has not provided any lethal weapons to Ukraine, after Russian President Vladimir Putin said such a decision would destroy bilateral relations.
U.S. National Security spokesperson John Kirby said last week that Washington had information that North Korea was covertly supplying Russia with a “significant” number of artillery shells of its own for use in Ukraine.
Moscow and Pyongyang have denied any arms shipments.
(Reporting by Josh Smith and Mike Stone; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Gerry Doyle)