Frustrated by North Korea’s continued provocations and perhaps prodded by criticisms from U.S. President Donald Trump, the South Korean government has shifted away from engagement oriented policies to more strongly align with U.S.-led efforts to pressure the Kim Jong Un government into denuclearization talks.
“The sixth nuclear test was a factor that forced us to reassess the situation. And we have always said provocation means further pressure and sanctions,” said South Korean Foreign Affairs Minister Kang Kyung-wha at a press conference in Seoul on Monday.
North Korea’s rapid progress toward developing a nuclear inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of targeting the U.S. mainland is changing threat assessments and security calculations in the region and the world.
Pyongyang conducted its sixth nuclear test this month and is expected to soon launch another long-range ballistic missile, after conducting over 20 missile tests so far this year.
Prior to North Korea’s most recent nuclear provocation, South Korean President Moon Jae-in had advocated the need to balance sanctions with outreach and dialogue to bring the Kim government to denuclearization talks. However Pyongyang has ignored Seoul’s offers of outreach and cooperation, including holding reunions of separated families.
President Trump recently called South Korea’s engagement approach unworkable “appeasement.” In contrast, his administration’s “maximum pressure and maximum engagement” policy emphasizes strong sanctions along with the treat of military action to force Kim to yield.
Foreign Minister Kang said Monday that South Korea’s initial outreach was not appeasement but conceded that conditions are not right for dialogue at this point.
Last week, President Moon argued for tougher North Korean sanctions when visiting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The United Nations Security Council will meet Monday to consider further economic sanctions on North Korea that could include limits on the import of oil and restrictions on the export of laborers.
However Security Council members Russia and China have voiced a reluctance to impose crippling sanctions on the Kim regime. Putin has said sanctions and pressure alone will not solve this crisis and voiced concern that increasing “military hysteria” over the North Korean nuclear and missile tests could trigger a global catastrophe.
Yet Pyongyang has shown no interest in any diplomatic solutions suggested to reduce tensions, including China’s proposal for a joint freeze of North Korea’s nuclear program and a suspension of U.S.-South Korean joint military drills.
“Right now I don’t expect North Korea to be interested any kind of freezing negotiations, nuclear arms control negotiations, until they will acquire the proven capability to deliver a strike on the continental United States,” said Professor Andrei Lankov, a North Korea analyst with Kookmin University in Seoul.
North Korea said the U.S. will pay a “due price” for leading efforts to impose new U.N sanctions against the country. The North's Foreign Ministry spokesman said Washington was "going frantic" to manipulate the Security Council over Pyongyang's nuclear test, which it said was part of "legitimate self-defensive measures."
Foreign Minister Kang Monday also clarified that her government does not support basing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, despite the fact that the country’s defense minister said last week that such a U.S. nuclear deployment was under review.
“There are many elements to consider beyond the military and strategic value of this issue; the regional and global political context, the global non-proliferation norms, Korea’s profile in the nonproliferation norms, and of course denuclearization being the fundamental rationale with which we are promoting and pursuing complete denuclearization of the North nuclear program,” said Kang.
The United States had about 100 nuclear-armed weapons stationed in South Korea until 1991, when both North and South Korea signed an agreement not to develop nuclear weapons and use nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes.
While public support is growing in South Korea to match the North’s nuclear capability, critics argue basing U.S. nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula would validate the North’s nuclear state status and end the international commitment to pressure Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear program.