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Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelenskyy addressed South Korea's Parliament

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Asian nations are divided over how to respond to the war in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed South Korea's parliament today. But, as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, South Korea faces economic and political constraints on what it can do to help Ukraine.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: In his virtual address to lawmakers, President Zelenskyy referred to the 1950-1953 Korean War, in which South Korea repelled a North Korean invasion with the help of U.S. and United Nations troops. He asked Seoul to send heavy weapons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "If Ukraine receives such weapons," he said through an interpreter, "they will not only save Ukrainian lives, but also save the Ukrainian nation and other nations from Russia's aggression." South Korea, along with Japan and Singapore, was among the first Asian countries to join the West in sanctioning Russia. Seoul has banned transactions with major Russian banks and tightened export controls on strategic technologies. But so far, South Korea has shipped only nonlethal military aid to Ukraine. And it's drawn some criticism for dithering.

Sheen Seong-Ho, a professor of international security and East Asia at Seoul National University, explains.

SHEEN SEONG-HO: South Korean government concerned about South Korean business. We might have quite a big invested interest in the Russian market.

KUHN: Nevertheless, in March, automaker Hyundai suspended operations at its St. Petersburg factory, and Samsung stopped shipping cellphones and semiconductors to Russia. Seoul also hesitated to sanction Russia because it plays a role in the North Korean nuclear issue.

It's not the most important player now, says Sheen Seong-Ho. But...

SHEEN: If you think about the long-term perspective of establishing a kind of peninsula peace or peace regime in the region, definitely Russia will become one of the key members.

KUHN: Sheen notes that, with the crisis in Ukraine and their own domestic issues, major powers, including the U.S. and China, have little bandwidth for heightened tensions between the Koreas.

SHEEN: The problem is, what about North Korea, which seems to be quite, at the moment, unhappy or angry about American inaction.

KUHN: He says that Pyongyang is not content to be put on hold and is upping the ante by scrapping its moratorium on long-range missile and possibly nuclear tests, too. All this presents a stiff challenge to Seoul, as a new presidential administration takes over next month.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.