South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said his government has no plans for a nuclear deterrent despite growing threats from the North.
Yoon’s comments during a news conference came hours after South Korea’s military detected the North firing two cruise missiles from a region near its capital Pyongyang into its western waters.
Tensions could rise further next week as the United States and South Korea begin their biggest combined military exercise in years to counter the threat from North Korea.
The North describes these drills as invasion rehearsals and has often responded with missile tests or other provocations.
Yoon told reporters South Korea does not want political change in North Korea brought about by force and called for diplomacy aimed at building a sustainable peace between the rivals amid tensions over the North’s accelerated weapons program .
His comments came days after he proposed a “bold” economic aid package for North Korea if it abandons its nuclear weapons program, while avoiding harsh criticism of the North after it threatened “deadly” retaliation ” for an outbreak of Covid-19 that blames the South. .
Yoon’s proposal for large-scale aid in food and health and modernization of power and port infrastructure resembled previous South Korean offers that were rejected by North Korea, which is accelerating the its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, seen by leader Kim Jong Un as his own. the maximum guarantee of survival.
Still, Yoon expressed hope for “meaningful dialogue” with North Korea on its plan and stressed that Seoul is willing to offer economic rewards for each step of a gradual denuclearization process if the Nord commits to a real “road map” towards total abandonment. its weapons program.
“We are not telling them to ‘completely denuclearize first and then we will provide,'” Yoon said. “What we are saying is that we will offer everything we can in return for their steps if they only show a strong determination (toward denuclearization).”
Inter-Korean ties have soured amid a stalemate in larger nuclear talks between North Korea and the United States that derailed in early 2019 over disagreements over an easing of crippling US-led sanctions on the North in exchange for disarmament measures.
North Korea has stepped up missile tests at a record pace in 2022, launching more than 30 ballistic weapons so far, including its first intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in nearly five years.
The increase in test activity underscores North Korea’s dual intent to advance its arsenal and force the United States to embrace the idea of the North as a nuclear power so it can negotiate economic and security concessions from a position of strength, experts say.
Mr Kim could up the ante soon as there are signs the North is preparing to carry out its first nuclear test since September 2017, when it claimed to have developed a thermonuclear weapon to match its ICBM.
While ICBMs get much of the international attention, North Korea is also expanding its range of short-range, nuclear-capable missiles that can target South Korea.
Kim has punctuated his weapons development with threats to proactively use his nuclear weapons in conflicts against the South or the US, which experts say communicates a growing nuclear doctrine that could heighten his neighbors’ concerns.
Yoon has vowed to bolster the South’s defenses through its alliance with the United States resuming large-scale military training that was canceled or scaled back during the Trump years and boosting the South’s anti-missile defenses.