NATO's chief urges South Korea to step up military support for Ukraine
By Soo-hyang Choi and Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) -NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged South Korea on Monday to increase military support to Ukraine, citing other countries that have changed their policy of not providing weapons to countries in conflict following Russia's invasion.
Stoltenberg was speaking in Seoul, the first stop on a trip that will also include Japan and is aimed at strengthening ties with Western allies in Asia in the face of the war in Ukraine and rising competition with China.
Speaking at the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies in Seoul, he thanked South Korea for its non-lethal aid to Ukraine, but urged it to do more, adding there is an "urgent need" for ammunition.
"I urge the Republic of Korea to continue and to step up on the specific issue of military support," he said.
"At the end of the day, it's a decision for you to make, but I'll say that several NATO allies who have had as a policy to never export weapons to countries in a conflict have changed that policy now," he said, citing Germany, Sweden and Norway.
"If we don't want autocracy and tyranny to win, then they (Ukrainians) need weapons, that's the reality," said Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister.
South Korea has signed major deals providing hundreds of tanks, aircraft and other weapons to NATO member Poland since Russia invaded Ukraine. But President Yoon Suk-yeol has said a South Korean law that forbids supplying weapons to countries engaged in conflict makes it difficult to send arms to Ukraine.
Russia calls its invasion, launched on Feb. 24, a "special operation" to ward off threats to its own security.
Stoltenberg also met with Yoon and Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup, who echoed calls for closer ties with NATO based on shared values, but did not publicly address calls for more military aid to Ukraine.
In meetings with senior South Korean officials, Stoltenberg said events in Europe and North America were interconnected with those in other regions, and that the alliance wanted to help manage global threats by increasing partnerships in Asia.
The NATO chief said it was "extremely important" that Russia doesn't win this war, not only for the Ukrainians but also to avoid sending a wrong message to authoritarian leaders, including in Beijing, that they can get what they want by force.
Although China is not NATO's adversary, it has become "much higher" on NATO's agenda, he said, citing Beijing's rising military capabilities and coercive behaviour in the region.
"We believe that we should engage with China on issues like arms control, climate change and other issues," he said. "But at the same time, we are very clear that China poses a challenge to our values, to our interests, and to our security."
Responding to a question about Stoltenberg's remarks, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said on Monday that China was a partner to countries, not a challenge, and that it did not threaten any nation's interests or security.
"We also hope that NATO will abandon its Cold War mentality and the concept of bloc confrontation, and do more for the security and stability of Europe and the world," Mao told a regular news briefing.
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".
Last year South Korea opened its first diplomatic mission to NATO, vowing to deepen cooperation on non-proliferation, cyber defence, counter-terrorism, disaster response and other security areas.
U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin was also due to arrive in Seoul on Monday for talks with South Korean leaders.
(Reporting by Soo-hyang Choi; Additional reporting by Hanna Song and Eduardo Baptista; Editing by Kim Coghill, Gerry Doyle, Gareth Jones and Sharon Singleton)