Nuclear Envoys of US, South Korea Downplay Seoul’s Nuclear Intent
South Korea’s top nuclear envoy said an agreement with the United States to jointly bolster “extended deterrence” against North Korea gives the Yoon administration needed confidence that the alliance will be able to effectively defend against aggression from Pyongyang.
The U.S. commitment, laid out in a joint statement by the two countries in mid-September, includes an affirmation that a North Korean nuclear test “would be met with an overwhelming and decisive response.”
It adds that the two countries will “continue and strengthen close Alliance consultation regarding U.S. nuclear and missile defense policy.”
Kim Gunn, South Korea’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, reiterated a recent statement by South Korean President Yoon Suk on the matter during a Friday interview with Washington Talk, a weekly on-air discussion on North Korea by the VOA Korean Service.
“In his recent interview, my president made it very clear that we have confidence in the U.S. extended deterrence,” he said. “We are having a very close coordination [with the U.S.] on how to strengthen the effectiveness of our extended deterrence.”
On January 11, Yoon received widespread attention with a suggestion that Seoul could respond to the North Korean nuclear threat by building its own nuclear weapons or having U.S. strategic assets redeployed to South Korea.
His remarks came amid growing concern among the South Koreans over the U.S. commitment to defend their nation against growing North Korean threats. But Kim Gunn said on Washington Talk that the alliance’s focus on bolstering the extended deterrence should allay the public concern.
Sung Kim, U.S. special representative for North Korea, who appeared on the show with Kim Gunn, also seemed to play down speculation that South Korea is contemplating the development of its own nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction.
“President Yoon has made clear that the ROK is not interested in pursuing a WMD program but is instead working very closely with us in all levels to make sure that our defense and deterrence are as strong as it needs to be,” he said.
The ROK stands for South Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea.
The U.S. envoy continued, “That includes engaging in a very serious dialogue about how we strengthen extended deterrence, including things like looking at the frequency and intensity of U.S. strategic deployments on the peninsula.”
Bolstering extended deterrence
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup agreed at their meeting on January 31 in Seoul to boost deterrence measures including ways to expand information sharing and to respond to North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons through tabletop exercises scheduled for later this month.
The U.S. conducted joint military drills with South Korea on February 1 involving U.S. B-1B long-range strategic bombers and stealth fighters as a show of force to provide “credible extended deterrence against North Korea,” according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
In response, North Korea released a statement Thursday saying the combined drills have “reached an extreme red-line.” It vowed to “take the toughest reaction to any military attempt of the U.S. on the principle of ‘nuke for nuke and an all-out confrontation for an all-out confrontation.’”
At the same time, Pyongyang rejected any prospects for dialogue.
North Korea launched more then 90 ballistic and cruise missiles last year, including several intercontinental ballistic missiles. In September, it codified into its law the right to use nuclear weapons preemptively against threats it perceives as imminent.
Both envoys said North Korea largely dismissed calls by their nations for talks despite efforts made to engage Pyongyang.
Sung Kim said, “I can assure you that we have sent multiple messages to Pyongyang through various channels, including the New York channel.” The New York channel is the Permanent Mission of North Korea to the United Nations.
He continued, “Unfortunately, North Koreans have shown no interest in diplomatic engagement with us, but we will continue to remind them that our position has not changed, that we are, in fact, willing to engage in dialogue with them without preconditions.”
Kim Gunn said, “I think it’s obvious North Korea does not heed our call for dialogue.”
Despite Pyongyang’s lack of interest in engaging in talks, both envoys said the policy of Washington and Seoul to seek North Korea’s denuclearization has not changed.
When asked if he believes denuclearization is possible without changing the regime headed by Kim Jong Un, Sung Kim said yes. “We believe so.”
He continued, “That’s why our aim remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
China and Russia
Sung Kim, who also serves as the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, said China and Russia have said they share the goal of denuclearization, but he emphasized that neither has made commitments toward that goal.
“They have a responsibility to faithfully implement U.N. Security Council resolutions,” he said. “And we have seen a lot of information suggesting that both Russia and China are helping the DPRK evade sanctions.”
North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
China and Russia blocked on May 26 a U.N. Security Council resolution drafted by the U.S. calling for strengthened sanctions on North Korea in response to its renewed ballistic missile tests, including an ICBM launched the previous day.
Again, on November 4, China and Russia blocked a U.N. action on North Korea by providing Pyongyang with “blanket protection,” according to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield. The remarks came a day after North Korea launched an ICBM, which apparently failed.
Kim Gunn stressed the importance of China’s role in persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal.
Despite China’s increasingly assertive role in the region, a South Korean Indo-Pacific Strategy released in December described China as “a key partner.” Asked during the Washington Talk show about his country’s reasoning, the South Korean envoy said, “China must be our partner to persuade North Korea to give up [its] nuclear weapons.”
Also on the show, Sung Kim lauded President Joe Biden’s January 23 nomination of Julie Turner, a longtime State Department official, as the special envoy for human rights in North Korea. The position has been unfilled for the past six years.
“The signal it sends is to demonstrate [Biden’s] strong commitment to improving the lives of North Korean people, because we know that the human rights situation in North Korea remains very troubling,” said Sung Kim.
The Biden administration has maintained that human rights concerns are at the core of its foreign policy since it took office in January 2021.