SEOUL: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday condemned North Korea for sending arms to help the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as he held meetings with top officials in key ally South Korea.
The United States, South Korea and Japan have in recent weeks repeatedly criticized Pyongyang for helping Russia pursue its military campaign in Ukraine, with Seoul saying North Korea has sent a million artillery rounds.
Blinken is in Seoul following a G7 foreign ministers’ meeting in Japan. He met with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in Seoul on Thursday.
They “strongly condemned the provision of military equipment and munitions by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to the Russian Federation for use in its war against Ukraine”, the US State Department said in a readout of Blinken’s meeting with Yoon.
Blinken, it added, “also thanked President Yoon for the ROK’s pledge to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza”.
The top US diplomat’s Asian stops follow a whirlwind tour of the Middle East for discussions on the Israel-Hamas war.
Earlier Thursday, Blinken met South Korean national security advisor Cho Tae-yong. He thanked Cho for South Korea’s “commitment to providing assistance to Ukraine”, according to a State Department readout.
Historic allies Russia and North Korea are both under international sanctions – the former for its invasion of Ukraine and Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons and missile programmes.
Their growing military cooperation has been a source of concern for Ukraine and its allies, especially following North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in September.
South Korea has said Pyongyang is providing weapons in exchange for Russian space technology so that it can put a military spy satellite in orbit.
“We’re deeply concerned about what Russia is providing Pyongyang in return for the weapons and munitions that it’s getting,” Blinken had said in Tokyo.
The Kremlin said last month there was “no proof” North Korea was sending weapons to Russia.
“Given this renewed cooperation between North Korea and Russia, South Korea understandably wants a demonstration of US support and a reaffirmed US commitment to uphold UN sanctions,” Benjamin A. Engel, a professor at Seoul National University, told the Media.
“This visit is designed to do that.”
Blinken is also meeting his South Korean counterpart in the afternoon.
– ‘Upgraded alliance’ –
South Korea is a major arms exporter, but a longstanding policy bars it from sending weapons into active conflict zones.
However, it is expected to face continued US pressure to revise that position, analysts said.
“As conflict in the Middle East and Russia’s war in Ukraine reverberate around the world, upgraded alliance cooperation must be increasingly global in scope,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, told the Media.
South Korea has ramped up security cooperation with the United States under the Yoon administration in the face of growing threats from North Korea.
That has included large-scale military drills involving thousands of troops and strategic assets including US long-range heavy bombers.
Last month, a nuclear-capable US Air Force B-52 bomber made a rare landing in South Korea, less than a week after a visit by a US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
Blinken’s visit is “further evidence” of a strengthened bilateral alliance, said Easley.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is also scheduled to visit South Korea this month.