SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean President Yoon Hee-yeol has warned of an unprecedented joint response with allies if North Korea goes ahead with nuclear tests and urged China to help dissuade North Korea from developing banned nuclear weapons and missiles.
In an interview with Reuters on Monday, Yoon called on China, North Korea’s closest ally, to fulfill its responsibilities as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Failure to do so would lead to an influx of military assets into the region, he said.
“What is certain is that China has the ability to influence North Korea, and China has the responsibility to participate in this process,” Yin said in his office. He added that it was up to Beijing to decide whether it would exert such influence for the sake of peace and stability.
Yoon noted that North Korea’s actions have led to increased defense spending by neighboring countries in the region, including Japan, and increased deployment of U.S. warplanes and ships.
He said it was in China’s interest to do its utmost to denuclearize North Korea.
Asked what South Korea and its allies the United States and Japan would do if North Korea conducted a new nuclear test, Yoon said the response “would be unprecedented,” but declined to elaborate on what that would entail.
“It would be extremely unwise for North Korea to conduct a seventh nuclear test,” he told Reuters.
Amid a record year of missile tests, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said this week that the North intends to have the world’s most powerful nuclear force. South Korean and U.S. officials say Pyongyang may be preparing to resume nuclear weapons testing for the first time since 2017.
The North Korean test overshadowed multiple gatherings of international leaders this month, including a Group of 20 meeting in Bali, where Yin urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to do more to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations. Xi Jinping urged Seoul to improve relations with Pyongyang.
Ahead of the G20 summit, U.S. President Joe Biden told Xi that Beijing had an obligation to try to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear tests, although he said it was unclear whether China could do so. Biden’s national security adviser, Jack Sullivan, said ahead of the meeting that Biden would warn Xi that North Korea’s continued development of weapons would lead to a stronger U.S. military presence in the region, which Beijing does not want.
South Korea and the United States have agreed to deploy more U.S. “strategic assets” such as aircraft carriers and long-range bombers to the region, but Yoon said he expected no change to the 28,500 U.S. ground troops stationed in South Korea.
“We have to respond consistently and in step with each other,” said Yoon, who blamed three decades of North Korea policy failures on a lack of coherence in the international response.
China fought alongside North Korea in the 1950-53 Korean War and has since supported it economically and diplomatically, but analysts say Beijing may have limited power and perhaps little desire to contain Pyongyang. China said it enforced the UN Security Council sanctions it voted for, but has since called for them to be eased and joined Russia in blocking a US-led attempt to impose new sanctions.
Opposition to changing Taiwan’s “status quo”
Strengthening ties and coordination with Washington is at the heart of Yoon’s foreign policy, an emphasis underscored by the main item on his desk: a sign that reads “This Ends Responsibility,” a gift from Biden.
Like his predecessor Moon Jae-in, Yoon is treading cautiously amid growing U.S.-China rivalry. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner and a close partner of North Korea.
Regarding the growing tension between mainland China and Taiwan, Yin said any conflict should be resolved according to international norms and rules.
Democratic Taiwan, which China claims as its own, has come under increasing military and political pressure from Beijing, which says it will never renounce the use of force against the island.
“I firmly oppose any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo,” Yin said.
Asked about the role of South Korea or U.S. troops stationed in Taiwan in a conflict over Taiwan, Yoon said the country’s military would “consider the overall security situation,” but their most pressing concern was North Korean troops trying to exploit the situation.
“It’s important to address the imminent threats around us and contain possible threats,” he said.
Yoon also made strengthening cooperation with Japan a central goal, despite legal and political disputes that have lingered since Japan occupied the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
South Korea, Japan and the United States have agreed to share real-time information to track North Korea’s ballistic missile tests.
As part of its biggest military expansion since World War II, Japan is expected to procure new munitions, including longer-range missiles, spend money on cyber defenses and create a joint command headquarters for land, sea and air that will be more closely aligned with U.S. forces. Work closely with Japan.
Japan’s military ambitions have long been a sensitive issue for its neighbors, many of which were invaded before or during World War II.
Yoon’s predecessor stopped many trilateral exercises and nearly reached an intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo as relations soured.
Yoon said Japan now faces increasing threats from North Korea’s missile program, including tests over the Japanese islands.
“I believe the Japanese government cannot fall asleep with North Korean missiles flying over its territory,” he said.
Reporting by Soyoung Kim, Jack Kim and Josh Smith; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Nick Macfie and Gerry Doyle
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