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South Korea doesn’t need nukes to confront North, PM says


Seoul, South Korea

South Korea does not need nuclear weapons to deter the threat from North Korea, the country’s Prime Minister Han Duck-soo has said in an exclusive interview with CNN – even as public opinion swings the other way amid the accelerating arms race in Asia.

Several recent public inquiries “have clearly shown that we should rearm. In terms of nuclear capability, (surveys say) we should go further,” Han told CNN and business editor. Richard Quest during a sit-down in Seoul.

One such poll, published last February, revealed that 71% of more than 1,300 people polled in the country were in favor of South Korea developing its own nuclear weapons – a once unthinkable idea that has become increasingly commonplace over the past decade, with rising tensions in the Korean peninsula and South Korea’s loss of confidence in American protection.

However, Han insisted the country had enough in its arsenal to stave off North Korea’s “absurd ambitions” – and that developing nuclear capabilities was not “the right path”.

“We have built a very adequate level of our deterrence capabilities in close cooperation with the United States,” he said, adding that the government had “placed a lot of importance” on strengthening its deterrence since. that President Yoon Suk Yeol took power last year. .

“We need to work with the international community…to put continued strong pressure on North Korea to denuclearize,” he said. “We would like to let North Korea know that the development and advancement of nuclear capabilities will not guarantee peace and prosperity in their country.”

Relations between North and South Korea have deteriorated in recent years as Pyongyang has stepped up its weapons program, firing a record number of missiles last year – including one that flew over Japan, the first times North Korea has done in five years, sparking international alarm.

And for months, US and international observers have warned that North Korea appears to be preparing for its first underground nuclear test since 2017. The country’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, also stepped up his rhetoric last year; he declared his intention to build the “most powerful nuclear force in the world”, warned his adversaries that North Korea was fully prepared for “real war”, vowed to “never give up” nuclear weapons and ruled out the possibility of negotiating denuclearization.

In response, the United States and its allies South Korea and Japan have stepped up their own military exercises and cooperation. Yoon, who has publicly taken a tough stance against North Korea, even raised the possibility of South Korea building its own nuclear arsenal, saying in January that it could “deploy tactical nukes or possess its own nukes “.

And while Han voiced his opposition to such a plan, he also pointed to South Korea’s readiness to confront its nuclear-armed neighbor — as well as its openness to further talks, under certain conditions.

“We are not disarming against North Korea,” he said. “But we are not closing the channel of dialogue with North Korea…as long as North Korea refrains from its very strong nuclear ambitions.”

Kim Jong Un calls for ‘exponential’ increase in country’s nuclear arsenal

Han also touched on China’s role in the region, saying the superpower was “not the country it was”, over the past decades that ushered in economic reforms and liberalisation.

“China is a huge and important global player,” he said. “Including Korea, I think many countries would like to see (China) be more in line with global rules.”

He added that although China will “contribute a lot to solving global problems”, the country often does not meet the “expectations that many countries would like to have – for example, we hoped that China would be more aggressive and more active in reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

For years, China has been North Korea’s biggest trading partner and an economic lifeline, with Pyongyang isolated from much of the world.

But Beijing is also a major player in the arms race in Asia.

In January, the US and Japanese ministers warned of “the continued and accelerated expansion of (China’s) nuclear arsenal”. A few days later, the Japanese prime minister expressed concern over China’s military activities in the East China Sea and the launch of ballistic missiles over Taiwan that landed in waters near Japan in August.

China’s military buildup, aggressive foreign policy and multiple contested territorial claims have not gone unnoticed in Seoul, where attitudes toward Beijing are rapidly deteriorating.

In the 2022 South Korean nuclear weapons survey, more than half of respondents said China would be the biggest threat to the country in 10 years, and many cited “threats other than Korea.” of the North” behind their support for a national nuclear arsenal.

Han acknowledged that Seoul is closely monitoring these territorial disputes.

“Peace in the Taiwan Strait is also very important for the security and peace of the Korean Peninsula,” he said. And although South Korea is “committed” to the one-China policy, he said, “at the same time, we (expect) China to be more rules-based, not behaving as a country…condemned by the international community”.

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