Blinken Visits South Korea as North Korea, Russia Deepen Ties

Toshifumi Kitamura/Pool via REUTERS
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken looks at journalists during a meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa (not in photo) at the foreign ministry in Tokyo, Japan, November 7, 2023.

SEOUL (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to arrive in Seoul on Wednesday for talks with his South Korean counterpart, as the allies step up cooperation in the face of growing concerns over North Korea’s closer military ties with Russia.

The two-day visit, the first by a U.S. secretary of state in two and a half years, is part of Blinken’s broader Asia trip that has included meetings with G7 counterparts and bilateral talks with Japanese officials in Tokyo, as well as a later stop in India amid the Israel-Hamas conflict.

The Seoul visit comes as the United States and South Korea, along with Japan, have condemned what they say is the supply of arms and military equipment by North Korea to Russia.

Washington and Seoul see the closer military ties between the North and Russia, which is thought to be suffering depleting stocks of munitions in its war with Ukraine, as an effort by Pyongyang to secure strategic military capabilities in return.

North Korea is preparing to launch a spy satellite after having failed twice this year to put one in orbit.

South Korea’s spy agency said last week North Korea was in the final stages of preparations for the launch after apparently receiving technical assistance from Russia.

Pyongyang and Moscow have denied claims of arms deals while their leaders pledged closer military cooperation when they met in September in Russia’s far east.

South Korea’s military said on Monday it was on alert over possible North Korea provocations after Pyongyang designated Nov. 18 as “missile industry day” to commemorate the country’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) last year.

North Korea in November in 2022 tested the Hwasong-17 ICBM, a weapon potentially able to deliver a nuclear warhead to anywhere in the United States.

With aid from the United States, South Korea also plans to launch its first spy satellite on Nov. 30 on a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket from the U.S. military’s Vandenberg base.

A U.S. official has said the United States remained focused on the Indo-Pacific despite other global challenges and Blinken’s trip demonstrated such “enduring” commitment.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is also due to visit South Korea this week on a trip that will include Indonesia and India.

In Washington, U.S. and South Korean officials held talks on North Korea’s illicit cyber activities that they say fund its unlawful weapons programs, South Korea’s foreign ministry said.

Sanctions monitors have accused the reclusive state of using cyberattacks to gather funds for its nuclear and missile programs, and a United Nations report said the North stepped up its cryptocurrency thefts, using sophisticated techniques to steal more in 2022 than any other year.