U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday he shared South Korean concerns about growing military co-operation between North Korea and Russia, which he called a “two-way street” involving arms flows and technical support.
Blinken and South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin also said they discussed a so-called extended deterrence strategy in countering threats from North Korea, meaning the use of U.S. military assets including its nuclear forces for protection from attacks, and improving co-operation with Japan.
“We have real concerns about any support for North Korea’s ballistic missile programs, for its nuclear technology, for its space launch capacity,” Blinken told a news conference in the South Korean capital. “We’re working to … identify, to expose and as necessary to counter these efforts.”
Blinken’s two-day visit to South Korea is his first in two-and-a-half years and part of a broader Asia trip that saw a visit to Japan and will include a stop in India.
He came to Asia from the Middle East, where the conflict in Gaza has combined with the war in Ukraine to overshadow Washington’s efforts to focus on the Indo-Pacific region.
North Korean weapons have reportedly appeared in use in Gaza, and the United States and allies have condemned what they say is the flow of arms and military equipment from North Korea to Russia for use in Ukraine.
North Korea and Russia have denied any arms deals though their leaders pledged closer military co-operation when they met in September in Russia’s far east.
Blinken said North Korea was supplying military equipment to Russia for use in its war with Ukraine while Russia was in turn providing technical support to help the North make military progress.
“That’s a real concern for the security of the Korean Peninsula, a real concern for global non-proliferation regimes, it’s a real concern for the Russian aggression of Ukraine and a real concern for the violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions,” he said.
He said the United States and its two east Asian allies were increasing co-operation on North Korea, which has been developing its nuclear weapons and missiles in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.
Park said China had a constructive role to play over the tensions that the ties between North Korea and Russia were creating, describing them as not in Beijing’s interest.
Blinken’s brief stop in Seoul demonstrates U.S. commitment to the Korean peninsula and regional issues, and that the allies are implementing agreements made in earlier presidential summits, despite the pressing conflicts elsewhere, said Duyeon Kim, an analyst with the Center for a New American Security.
“Still, it will be important for the U.S. to sustain attention at all levels of the government because North Korea and even China would think is now has more room to manoeuvre,” she said.
In Japan on Wednesday, Blinken and other G7 foreign ministers condemned North Korea’s transfer of arms to Russia which they said was a direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions.
The G7 ministers also called for pauses in the fighting between Israel and Hamas to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians in Gaza after a month of bombardment and increasing ground operations by Israel’s military.
Park said he joined Blinken and the G7 ministers in urging humanitarian pauses in the fighting and was keenly monitoring reports of North Korea’s involvement in helping Hamas.
“We are keeping a close eye on any North Korean link to weapons that Hamas is using, or Hamas’ doctrine or strategies, all of those activities,” Park said. “If any link is confirmed, I think North Korea should be condemned accordingly.”
North Korea has denied reports by some military experts that its weapons were being used by Hamas, saying the accusation was a U.S. ploy to divert attention away from its responsibility.
As he arrived for talks with Park, Blinken was met with a group of South Korean protesters calling for Israel to declare a ceasefire and for South Korea not to join what one participant called “the U.S.-Israel policy”.
Park said Blinken and he also discussed North Korea’s attempt to launch a spy satellite and urged it to call it off.
North Korea is believed to be preparing to make a third launch attempt after failing twice this year to put one in orbit. South Korea said last week North Korea was in the final stages of preparations for a launch after apparently getting technical help from Russia.