SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Monday called for South Korea to provide direct military support to Ukraine, saying Kyiv is in urgent need of weapons to fight off the prolonged Russian invasion.
South Korea, a growing arms exporter with a well-equipped, U.S.-backed military, has provided humanitarian aid and other support to Ukraine while joining U.S.-led economic sanctions against Moscow. But it has not directly provided arms to Ukraine, citing a long-standing policy of not supplying weapons to countries actively engaged in conflict.
Speaking at a forum in Seoul, Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, urged South Korea to “step up on the specific issue of military support.” He noted that several NATO members and allies, including Germany, Norway and Sweden, have changed their policies of not exporting weapons to countries in conflict to support Ukraine.
“If we believe in freedom, if we believe in democracy, if we don’t want autocracy and tyranny to win, then they need weapons. That’s the reality,” said Stoltenberg, who arrived in South Korea on Sunday on a trip that also includes Japan.
Stoltenberg also met with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Monday. They discussed South Korea’s commitment to support Ukraine and NATO’s possible role in dissuading North Korea from its growing nuclear ambitions following an unprecedented number of ballistic missile tests in 2022, Yoon’s office said.
South Korean officials didn’t confirm any specific discussions about sending arms to Ukraine.
Following a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin on Sunday, Stoltenberg mentioned U.S. intelligence reports accusing North Korea of providing weapons to Russia to support its war in Ukraine, which he said highlights how security between the regions is “more and more interconnected.”
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, South Korea has reached billions of dollars worth of deals to provide tanks, howitzers, fighter jets and other weapons systems to Poland, a NATO member. An American official said in November that the United States has agreed to buy 100,000 artillery rounds from South Korean manufacturers to provide to Ukraine, although South Korean officials have maintained that the munitions were meant to refill depleted U.S. stocks.
In an interview with The Associated Press this month, Yoon said that South Korean laws, as well as domestic public opinion, make it difficult for his government to arm Ukraine while it is at war. But he expressed openness to more arms deals with the United States in the future, noting the two allies regularly buy military equipment from one another.
Stoltenberg’s comments at the forum came hours after North Korea condemned his visits to South Korea and Japan, saying that NATO was trying to put its “military boots in the region” and attempting to pressure America’s Asian allies into providing weapons to Ukraine.
In a statement released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, North Korea said that increasing cooperation between NATO and U.S. allies in Asia was part of a process to create an “Asian version of NATO” that would raise tensions in the region.
North Korea over the weekend also issued two separate statements condemning the United States over its decision to supply Ukraine with advanced tanks, calling it a sinister move to escalate a “proxy war” aimed at destroying Moscow.
The series of statements underscore North Korea’s alignment with Russia over the war in Ukraine, which North Korea has blamed on the West.
However, North Korea has repeatedly denied U.S. accusations that it has been sending large supplies of artillery shells and other ammunition to Russia to support its offensive in Ukraine and warned on Sunday that the Biden administration would face unspecified “undesirable” consequences if it continues to spread the “self-made rumor.”