Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of NATO, has urged South Korea to “step up” military support for Ukraine, citing other governments that have changed their policies on exporting weapons to countries in conflict following the Russian invasion.
Stoltenberg made the appeal in the South Korean capital, Seoul, on Monday.
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He is in the city on the first leg of an Asia trip that will also include stops in Japan and is aimed at boosting ties with the region’s democratic allies in the face of the war in Ukraine and rising competition with China.
In meetings with senior South Korean officials, Stoltenberg argued that events in Europe and North America are interconnected with other regions, and that the alliance wants to help manage global threats by increasing partnerships in Asia.
Speaking at the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies in Seoul, he thanked South Korea for its nonlethal aid to Ukraine but urged it to do more, adding there was an “urgent need” for ammunition. Russia calls the invasion a “special operation”.
He pointed to countries like Germany and Norway that had “longstanding policies not to export weapons to countries in conflict” that were revised after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February last year.
“If we believe in freedom, democracy, if we don’t want autocracy and totalitarian to win then they need weapons,” he said.
South Korea is an increasingly important global arms exporter and has recently signed deals to sell hundreds of tanks to European countries, including NATO-member Poland. But South Korean law bans the export of weapons to countries in active conflict, which Seoul has said makes it difficult to provide arms directly to Kyiv.
South Korea opened its first diplomatic mission to NATO last year.
Stoltenberg said it was unclear when the conflict in Ukraine would end, saying Putin was preparing for “more war” and actively acquiring weapons from countries, including North Korea.
In a statement carried by state media on Monday, North Korea called Stoltenberg’s visit a “prelude to confrontation and war as it brings the dark clouds of a ‘new Cold War’ to the Asia-Pacific region”.
Pyongyang on Sunday denied sending weapons to Moscow, accusing the United States of spreading a “groundless rumor”.
“Trying to tarnish the image of [North Korea] by fabricating a non-existent thing is a grave provocation that can never be allowed and that cannot but trigger its reaction,” said Kwon Jong Gun, director general of North Korea’s Department of US Affairs.
He also called it “a foolish attempt to justify its offer of weapons to Ukraine”.
Earlier this week, US President Joe Biden promised 31 Abrams tanks, one of the most powerful and sophisticated weapons in the US army, to help Kyiv fight off Moscow’s invasion.