Pentagon chief discusses North Korean threat with Japan, South Korea

International tension has been rising over a series of North Korean ballistic missile tests. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - United States Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke on Wednesday (Feb 9) with the defence ministers of South Korea and Japan about the threats posed by North Korea after missile launches by Pyongyang, the Pentagon said.

International tension has been rising over a series of North Korean ballistic missile tests, actions long banned by the United Nations Security Council. January was a record month of such tests, with at least seven launches, including a new type of “hypersonic missile” able to manoeuvre at high speed.

“The leaders emphasised that the DPRK’s ballistic missile launches are destabilising to regional security and a clear violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name of Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

South Korean Defence Minister Suh Wook said the launches posed a “direct and serious threat”, and vowed to bolster response capabilities based on the US alliance.

The three ministers agreed to hold an in-person meeting in the near future, his office said in a statement, without specifying the date.

North Korea boasted on Tuesday that it is one of only a handful of countries in the world to field nuclear weapons and advanced missiles and the only one standing up to the US by “shaking the world” with missile tests.

An excerpt of a confidential UN report said that North Korea continued to develop its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes during the past year and cyber attacks on cryptocurrency exchanges were an important revenue source for Pyongyang.

Separately, South Korea President Moon Jae-in said a resumption of North Korea’s nuclear weapon or long-range missile tests would instantly send the peninsula back into crisis, calling for measures to prevent that from happening.

The record month of North Korean missile testing in January highlighted failures of Mr Moon’s efforts to engineer a breakthrough as his term ends in May, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has suggested he could order new nuclear tests or intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches for the first time since 2017.

“If North Korea’s series of missile launches goes as far as scrapping a moratorium on long-range missile tests, the Korean peninsula may instantly fall back into the state of crisis we faced five years ago,” Mr Moon said in a written interview with the media in Seoul scheduled for publication on Thursday.

“Preventing such a crisis through persistent dialogue and diplomacy will be the task that political leaders in the countries concerned must fulfill together.”

Mr Moon admitted it is unlikely that a last-minute summit with Mr Kim or the adoption of his proposal for a declaration ending the 1950-1953 Korean War would happen before he leaves office.

Still, he said the US and South Korea have agreed on the text of the declaration, and that a summit between Mr Kim and US President Joe Biden “is just a matter of time” if all sides wish to avoid a crisis.

“Since dialogue is the only way to resolve problems, a meeting between President Biden and Chairman Kim is expected to take place eventually,” he said.

Mr Moon has pushed for a formal end to the Korean War to replace the armistice that stopped the fighting but left it and the US-led United Nations Command still technically at war.

“I would at least like to make conditions ripe for an end-of-war declaration and pass that on to the next administration,” he said.

Mr Moon said his most rewarding achievement was helping “shift the direction towards dialogue and diplomacy rather than military confrontation”.

The biggest regret of his term, however, is the failure of the US- North Korea summit in Hanoi, he said, where Mr Kim and then-US President Donald Trump walked away with no agreements on reducing North Korea’s nuclear weapons or missiles in return for easing international sanctions.

“It is very regrettable that the summit ended in ‘no deal’ when the continuation of dialogue should have been ensured at least,” he said, arguing that a smaller, phased deal should still have been pursued when it became clear that a “big deal” was out of reach.

“Still now, if they learn from that experience and put their heads together to discuss mutually acceptable, realistic measures...I believe there will be ample opportunities to find a solution,” he added.

Mr Biden’s administration has said it is willing to meet the North Koreans any time without preconditions, but Pyongyang says it will not resume negotiations unless Washington and Seoul drop “hostile policies” such as military drills, sanctions, and arms buildups.

Despite the stalled talks and increase in tensions, Mr Moon said necessary communication with Mr Kim has continued, and he does not think Mr Biden has returned to the “strategic patience” policies of the Obama administration because he continues to make practical efforts to resume dialogue.

“We cannot afford to give up this task,” Mr Moon said.

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