North Korea crisis 'poses wider danger to region': PM Lee

PM Lee's first detailed comments on the issue since Pyongyang began stepping up nuclear tests this year came as it warned on Thursday that it would unleash an "unimaginable strike at an unimaginable time".
PM Lee's first detailed comments on the issue since Pyongyang began stepping up nuclear tests this year came as it warned on Thursday that it would unleash an "unimaginable strike at an unimaginable time".PHOTO: REUTERS

North Korea's ongoing nuclear provocations not only pose an immediate danger to the region, but could also shift the strategic balance in North-east Asia and raise tensions in the longer term, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said.

Pyongyang's recent missile and nuclear tests have prompted South Korea and Japan to look at what they need to do to protect themselves, in particular by developing some form of nuclear capability, he noted in an interview with CNBC.

"If it goes that way, and South Korea and Japan go closer to being a nuclear power or actually cross the threshold, it means a different strategic and security balance in North-east Asia," he said. "More risky, more tense, and the Chinese will be very alarmed. And I do not think it will make for a safer world. There will be implications elsewhere in the world."

His first detailed comments on the issue since Pyongyang began stepping up nuclear tests this year came as it warned on Thursday that it would unleash an "unimaginable strike at an unimaginable time".

Brinkmanship has been part of the North Korean issue for a long time, he said. "It is part of the game: You make a threat, you posture, you make a risky move, you hope that the other side will then do something to placate you, or to give you some advantage in exchange for good behaviour. Then after some time, it starts again. So, it is not the first time."

The difference this time, he said, is that North Korea has conducted more nuclear tests, and is developing missile technology, including the ability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles. So, the risks are higher. "The danger is not just the immediate alarms but also the longer-term trends, which are set off in North-east Asia, if things persist in this direction," PM Lee said.

"With North Korea going this way, the South Koreans are asking themselves, 'What can we do? The Americans have removed their tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea... Do we ask the Americans to bring them back? Do we... think of developing some capability?' "

He noted that 60 per cent of South Koreans now think they should have some kind of nuclear capability. Likewise, Japan, which has very strong anti-nuclear public sentiment, will be forced to think about the possibilities and what they may need to do to protect themselves.

PM Lee noted that a former Japanese defence minister recently wondered if they "should ask the Americans to bring their nuclear weapons and put them in Japan". "The government said, 'No, we shouldn't'. But these are thoughts which cannot be completely suppressed."

Several commentators have also suggested it might be a good thing for regional security if Tokyo and Seoul had nuclear capabilities.

The North Korean issue will be on the agenda at two regional summits next month, which US President Donald Trump will attend.

"It is very high on the US agenda. President Trump himself is very seized with it. Asean is also focused on this, although Asean's influence in these matters must be limited."

Asked about Mr Trump's comment that "China is the linchpin to solving the North Korean crisis", PM Lee said it has a major role to play. It shares a border, and is a big part of Pyongyang's external trade. "They have influence over North Korea. But I would not say that the North Koreans will do anything that the Chinese want them to do. Big countries know that small countries can be quite obstreperous.

"The Chinese have complex calculations to balance. They are living there with the neighbour. They do not want to destabilise the neighbour," he added. "At the same time, I think they cannot be at all happy with the way things are going with nuclear tests and with missile tests. It must worry them a great deal."

Zakir Hussain

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2017, with the headline 'North Korea crisis 'poses wider danger to region''. Print Edition | Subscribe