SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s president said Wednesday that his government does not plan to pursue its own nuclear deterrent and instead called for more diplomacy in the face of North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons capabilities, even as the North was testing two suspected cruise missiles.
The launches were detected from the west coast of North Korea hours before South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol used a press conference to urge Pyongyang to return to diplomacy aimed at trading denuclearization steps for economic benefits.
The South Korean military, which only revealed the launches after Yoon’s remarks, did not provide any immediate flight details of the North’s weapons, including how they moved or how far they traveled.
Yoon’s office said its director of national security, Kim Sung-han, discussed the launch with other senior officials before Yoon spoke to reporters and they reviewed the South’s military preparedness. Tensions could rise further as the United States and South Korea launch their largest combined training in years next week to counter the North Korean threat. The North describes these drills as invasion rehearsals and has often responded to them with missile tests or other provocations.
At the press conference, Yoon maintained a reserved tone on Pyongyang, saying Seoul does not want political change in North Korea brought about by force and that rivals should aim to build a lasting peace.
Yoon’s comments followed his Monday proposal for a “bold” economic aid package for North Korea if it gave up its nuclear weapons program. He has avoided harsh criticism from the North after threatening “deadly” retaliation last week over a COVID-19 outbreak he blames on the South.
Yoon’s proposal for large-scale aid in food and health care and modernization of electricity and port infrastructure resembled previous offers from South Korea that were rejected by North Korea, which is accelerating its development. nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, considered by leader Kim Jong Un to be his strongest guarantee of survival.
Still, Yoon expressed hope for a “meaningful dialogue” with North Korea over his plan and stressed that Seoul is willing to provide corresponding economic rewards at each stage of a gradual denuclearization process if the North s is committed to a real “road map” towards the total abandonment of its weapons. program.
“We don’t tell them to ‘fully denuclearize first and then we’ll supply,'” Yoon said. “What we’re saying is we’ll provide the things we can match their moves if they only show a firm resolve (towards denuclearization).”
Inter-Korean relations have soured amid a stalemate in broader nuclear talks between North Korea and the United States that were derailed in early 2019 over disagreements over an easing of crippling US-led sanctions. United against the North in exchange for disarmament measures.
North Korea ramped up its missile testing at a record pace in 2022, launching more than 30 ballistic weapons so far, including its first intercontinental ballistic missiles in nearly five years.
The intensive testing activity underscores North Korea’s dual intention of advancing its arsenal and forcing the United States to accept the idea of the North as a nuclear power so that it can negotiate economic concessions and security in a position of strength, according to experts. Kim could raise the bar as soon as there are indications that the North is preparing to conduct its first nuclear test since September 2017, when it claimed to have developed a thermonuclear weapon to mount on its ICBMs.
While Kim’s ICBMs are attracting much international attention, North Korea is also expanding its range of nuclear-capable short-range missiles that can target South Korea. Kim has punctuated his weapons development with threats to proactively use his nukes in conflicts against the South or the United States, which experts say communicates a growing nuclear doctrine that could heighten concerns among its neighbors. .
Yoon has pledged to strengthen southern defenses through his alliance with the United States by resuming large-scale military training that was canceled or reduced during the Trump years and strengthening southern missile defenses. The Biden administration also reaffirmed US commitments to defend South Korea and Japan, including “extended deterrence,” referring to an assurance to defend its allies with all military capabilities, including nuclear ones.
But some experts say it is becoming clear that South Korea has no clear way to counter North Korea’s influence with its nuclear weapons, fearing Washington will be reluctant to defend its ally in the event of war then that Kim’s ICBMs pose a potential threat to the Americas. cities.
Some South Koreans have called for the reintroduction of US tactical nuclear weapons that were withdrawn from the South in the 1990s, or for Seoul to continue its own deterrent.
Yoon dismissed the latter’s possibility at the press conference, saying Seoul would remain committed to an international treaty to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
“I believe that the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) regime is a very important and necessary premise for permanent world peace,” Yoon said, expressing hope that the US deterrence strategy for its allies can evolve to counter the growing threat from the North.
Yoon’s comments came after North Korea last week claimed a widely disputed victory over COVID-19 but also blamed South Korea for the outbreak. North Korea insists that leaflets and other items carried across the border by activists are spreading the virus, an unscientific claim that Seoul calls “ridiculous”.
North Korea has a habit of increasing pressure on South Korea when it does not get what it wants from the United States, and there are fears that the North Korean threat portends a provocation, which could include a nuclear or missile test or even border skirmishes. . Some experts say North Korea could stoke tensions over joint military exercises among allies.
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