South Korean president reiterates that Seoul will not seek its own nuclear deterrent

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South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol reiterated that the country would not seek its nuclear deterrent in the face of threats from nuclear-armed North Korea as he vowed further efforts to sharpen nuclear deterrence strategies with ally United States. In a pre-recorded interview with KBS television that aired on Wednesday night, Yoon insisted that South Korea has the technology to quickly acquire nuclear weapons capabilities if it ever decides to do so. But taking that step isn’t a realistic option as it would ruin a trade-dependent economy, he said.

“If we develop nuclear weapons, we will receive various economic sanctions like North Korea does now, and our economy will be dealt a serious blow,” Yoon said while emphasising Seoul’s commitment to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Yoon, a conservative who took office in 2022, has made similar comments before as he pushed for stronger reassurances from Washington that it would swiftly and decisively use its nuclear capabilities to defend its ally in the event of a North Korean nuclear attack.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are at their highest point in years, as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un continues to accelerate his country’s weapons tests while issuing provocative threats of nuclear conflict with the South. South Korea has responded by expanding its combined military exercises with the United States and Japan, and the countries have also been upgrading their nuclear deterrence strategies built around strategic US military assets.

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In a fiery speech at North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament last month, Kim declared that the North was abandoning its long-standing objective of reconciliation with the war-divided South and ordered the rewriting of the North Korean constitution to define the South as its most hostile foreign adversary. Pyongyang’s rubber-stamp parliament during a meeting on Wednesday formally abolished laws on economic cooperation with South Korea, according to the North’s Korean Central News Agency on Thursday.

Some experts say Kim is seeking to drive up pressure in an election year in South Korea and the United States. There are concerns about a direct provocation in border areas, including the disputed western sea boundary between the Koreas that has been the site of bloody naval skirmishes in past years. In his interview with KBS, Yoon described Kim’s government as “irrational forces” who are putting further strain on North Korea’s broken economy by aggressively expanding the country’s collection of nuclear weapons and missiles.

“We need to keep that in mind as we prepare to counter their security threats or provocations, preparing not just for actions based on rational judgments but also actions based on irrational conclusions,” Yoon said. South Korean experts and officials say Kim’s aggressive nuclear push despite limited resources has battered an economy already crippled by decades of mismanagement and US-led sanctions over his nuclear ambitions.

In a separate report, KCNA said Kim during an inspection on Wednesday of factories producing foodstuff, paper and basic necessities in a rural eastern region berated officials there for unspecified shortcomings in production. Yoon said the South was willing to provide economic assistance if the North displays genuine willingness to wind down its nuclear weapons and missile programme. He said he has no intentions to chase a summit with Kim “if it’s just for show”, saying that previous meetings between Korean leaders did nothing to stop North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

“The top-down way is not ideal,” Yoon said. “We need a bottom-up structure where there are exchanges and discussions between working-level officials to create agendas and prepare (substantial) results, and summits should come after that.”