S. Korea: China, Russia hold key to North’s denuclearization

SEOUL (AP): China and Russia’s reluctance to toughen U.N. sanctions on North Korea is “the biggest challenge” facing efforts to eliminate the North’s nuclear arsenal, a top South Korean official said Thursday, as the North remains ready to conduct its first nuclear test in five years.

China and Russia, which both have close ties with North Korea and are locked in confrontations with the United States, already vetoed a U.S.-led attempt to slap fresh sanctions on North Korea over its missile tests this year. That raises worries North Korea would escape punishment even if it performs a bigger provocation like a nuclear test explosion, which is banned by U.N. resolutions.

“Even if North Korea conducts an additional nuclear test, there is a possibility no additional sanctions will be adopted at the U.N. Security Council because of the U.S.-China strategic rivalry and U.S.-Russia tension over the Ukraine war,” South Korea’s vice defense minister, Shin Beomchul, told The Associated Press during an interview. “I think that is the biggest challenge to (efforts to resolve) the North Korean nuclear problem and an international anti-proliferation regime.”

Shin sat for the interview ahead of the South Korea-hosted annual security forum that is to focus on cooperation on how to achieve North Korea’s denuclearization and other regional issues. The Sept. 6-8 event, the first in-person gathering since 2019, is to draw senior defense officials and experts from more than 50 countries. North Korea has never participated in the Seoul Defense Dialogue since it began in 2012.

The forum comes four months after South Korea’s new conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol took office with a vow to take firmer steps on North Korean provocation in conjunction with boosting the military alliance with the United States.

Yoon’s North Korea policy has had little initial progress as Pyongyang recently bluntly rejected his offers to provide economic benefits in return for disarmament steps and threatened to use its nuclear weapons in potential conflicts with South Korea and the United States. Some worry that Yoon’s push to reinforce the U.S. alliance could trigger economic retaliations from China, South Korea’s biggest trading partner.

Shin said the Seoul forum is designed to expand South Korea’s diplomatic capacity in the face of a mix of complex regional security issues.

“While geopolitical crisis factors like the Ukraine war and the U.S.-China strategic rivalry have grown, North Korea is also accelerating its development of nuclear weapons,” he said. “Amid these security challenges, it would be meaningful that we’ll hold the Seoul Defense Dialogue to have comprehensive talks on developments in international politics, the North Korean nuclear threats and changes in international warfare and look for ways to respond to them.”

Shin said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would return to talks if he determines China and Russia would support efforts to impose new sanctions on North Korea when it carries out banned nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests.

“If we can have (Kim) believe that China and Russia would stop backing North Korea and reverse their positions and switch to additional sanctions when North Korea conducts an additional nuclear test and continues to launch an ICBM, I think North Korea can return to talks at anytime,” Shin said.

Subsequently, he said South Korea must increase its diplomatic efforts to persuade China and Russia to speak with one voice with other countries on the North’s nuclear program. Shin said China “holds the biggest key” to North Korean denuclearization, given the North’s economic dependence to it. Experts say China is North Korea’s biggest aid benefactor and more than 90% of the North’s trade goes through China.

For the past few months, South Korean and U.S. officials have said North Korea is ready to conduct its seventh nuclear test as part of its torrid run of weapons tests this year. Some observers say North Korea aims to enlarge its arsenal, win outside recognition as a legitimate nuclear power and call for the lifting of international sanctions on it.

It’s unclear why North Korea hasn’t yet conducted the test. Some analysts expect it after China’s ruling Communist Party holds a congress next month, while others believe there’s a technological reason it’s delayed.

Shin said North Korea would want to perform the test without receiving international sanctions so as to obtain nuclear power status. He warned that a lack of a condemnation at the U.N. Security Council would prompt the North to believe it has moved a step closer toward becoming an acknowledged nuclear state.

In April, Kim Jong Un said North Korea could preemptively use his nuclear weapons if provoked. In June, he and other top North Korean officials approved additional operational duties at front-line army units, triggering concerns it has plans to deploy battlefield nuclear weapons targeting South Korea as the North had test-launched short-range, nuclear-capable missiles designed to attack South Korea.

Shin said South Korea is pushing to bolster its own missile defense, pre-emptive attack and massive retaliation capabilities in response to the North Korean nuclear threats. He said South Korea and the United States are to revive talks in mid-September on “extended deterrence,” a term referring to U.S. commitment to defend its allies with a full range of military capability including nuclear.

Shin refused to provide detailed assessment on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. But he called North Korea’s short-range ballistic missile capability “far more threatening” than its developmental hypersonic and cruise missiles. Shin said South Korea hasn’t assessed that North Korea has acquired a reentry technology for its ICBMs, which is needed to return a nuclear warhead to the atmosphere from space so it can hit intended targets in mainland U.S.

“Nuclear states and countries considered as nuclear states in the world have repeatedly stressed they won’t use their nuclear weapons. But North Korea is hinting at the use of its nuclear weapons,” Shin said. “That reveals well North Korea’s intentions of developing nuclear weapons for a strategic purpose of pressing South Korea and the international community.”