The surprise trip came after Yoon attended a NATO summit in Lithuania and visited Poland this week, where he expressed solidarity with Ukraine against its war with Russia.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has made a surprise visit to Ukraine, offering an apparent show of support for the country in its war against Russia.
Yoon’s office said on Saturday that he travelled to Ukraine with his wife, Kim Keon-hee, following trips to Lithuania for a NATO summit and to Poland. It is his first visit since Russia invaded Ukraine almost 17 months ago.
Yoon toured Bucha and Irpin, two 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.
“The president first toured the Bucha city massacre site near the capital Kyiv and the city of Irpin, where missile attacks were concentrated on civilian residential areas,” Yoon’s office said.
“President Yoon will visit a memorial for the war dead to lay a wreath, and hold a summit meeting with President Zelenskyy,” it added in a statement.
A United States ally and rising arms exporter, South Korea has faced renewed pressure to provide weapons to Ukraine, which Yoon’s administration has resisted in favour of humanitarian and financial aid, wary of Russia’s influence over North Korea.
Yoon said this week that his administration was preparing to send de-mining equipment and ambulances, following a request from Ukraine, and will join NATO’s trust fund for Ukraine.
Although Yoon’s visit was not entirely unexpected, it is “very significant” given that few other Asian leaders have visited Ukraine, said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, the Korea Chair at the Brussels School of Governance.
Whether Yoon’s visit signals a shift in policy towards providing more support for Ukraine remains to be seen, but the trip suggests a stamp of approval from Kyiv for the aid that Seoul has sent so far, he said.
“If he’s going it’s because Zelenskyy 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 doing more to support Ukraine behind the scenes.
‘Challenge to freedom’
Zelenskyy asked Yoon to boost military support when they first met in May. South Korea’s defence ministry has said it was discussing exporting ammunition to the US.
However, in May South Korea dismissed a US media report that its artillery rounds were heading to Ukraine via the US, saying its position on not providing lethal aid to Kyiv was unchanged.
“We view Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a challenge to the international community’s freedom, human rights and the rule of law,” Yoon said upon meeting Polish President Andrzej Duda on Thursday, adding that South Korea could be a good partner in rebuilding Ukraine.
South Korea’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said on Friday it planned to support the reconstruction of Ukraine’s infrastructure, such as transportation, energy and industry.
South Korean companies and companies in Ukraine and other countries signed agreements on Friday to cooperate in the reconstruction of Ukraine, the ministry said in a statement.
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