By Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) -NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg arrived in South Korea on Sunday, the first stop on a trip that will include Japan and is aimed at strengthening ties with the U.S. allies in the face of the war in Ukraine and rising competition with China.
In the South Korean capital, Seoul, Stoltenberg met Foreign Minister Park Jin, and was expected to meet President Yoon Suk-yeol and Minister of National Defence Lee Jong-Sup.
NATO is concerned about North Korea's "reckless" missile tests and nuclear weapon programme, while the war in Ukraine had ramifications for Asia, Stoltenberg told Park in remarks at the beginning of their meeting, citing suspicion that North Korea is providing military support to the Russian war effort.
"This just highlights how we are interconnected," he said.
Both officials cited "shared values" between NATO countries and South Korea.
"Given today's unprecedented global challenges, we believe that solidarity among countries that share values of freedom, democracy, and rule of law is more important than ever," Park said.
Flying to Tokyo on Monday, the secretary general has meetings scheduled with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and other Japanese officials.
While NATO will remain focussed on Europe and North America, its members are affected by issues around the world, Stoltenberg told South Korea's Yonhap News agency in an interview.
"We need to address these global threats and challenges, including the challenges coming from China, and one way of doing that is, of course, to work more closely with partners in the region," he said.
Yoon and Kishida became the first leaders from their countries to attend a NATO summit, joining alliance leaders as observers last year.
Following the summit, 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.
Chinese state media had warned against South Korea and Japan attending the NATO summit and criticised the alliance's broadening partnerships in Asia.
North Korea has said NATO involvement in the Asia-Pacific region would import the conflict raging in Europe.
Both North Korea and Russia have denied U.S. accusations that North Korea is supplying weapons for the war in Ukraine.
North Korea on Sunday criticised for a second day a U.S. decision to send tanks to Ukraine, calling it an "unethical crime" aimed at perpetuating an unstable international situation.
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Hyun Young Yi; Editing by William Mallard, Robert Birsel)