SINGAPORE - South Korea’s Defence Minister Lee Jong-sup said on Sunday (June 12) that his country plans to dramatically enhance response capabilities to deter North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, while playing a constructive role as a “global pivotal state” within Asia’s security landscape.
“North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats have become more than a simple threat, from short-range to intercontinental ballistic missiles. Its repeated missile tests are advancing in quantity and quality,” said Mr Lee during a plenary session at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
“Our government... will dramatically enhance response capabilities of the Republic of Korea’s military to deter North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats,” said the minister, who described tensions on the Korean peninsula as “higher than any other place in the world”.
His comments came a day after North Korean state news agency KCNA cited leader Kim Jong Un as telling his political party that he would use “power for power” to fight threats to the country’s sovereignty.
Mr Lee, who took up his political role just a month ago, said new President Yoon Suk-yeol’s government will “pursue a bold plan that can yield ground-breaking improvements for North Korea’s economy and its citizens' quality of life” and seek to enhance missile response exercises with Japan as part of efforts to aid Pyongyang's denuclearisation.
He added that South Korea will look to strengthen trilateral security cooperation with Japan and the United States, in response to the North’s nuclear and missile threats.
The country has conducted 18 rounds of missile tests so far this year. The US has warned that the North is preparing to conduct a seventh nuclear test, and that Washington will again push for United Nations sanctions if that happens.
Mr Lee also said South Korea will seek to participate in “multilateral, consultative bodies”, including the Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus, a platform for Asean and its dialogue partners, the Asean Regional Forum and the Shangri-La Dialogue, which can result in “tangible contributions”.
He added that security cooperation with Asean will be an important key agenda of South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
“We will expect cooperation in more domains, more proactively while respecting Asean centrality,” he said, highlighting cyber security and terrorism as threats that Asean countries are facing.
Responding to Mr Lee's remarks, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies associate research fellow Shawn Ho said that while Asean would welcome his intent to enhance engagement, North Korea may be less open to engaging the South.
“Asean would welcome any country looking to enhance engagement, specifically anti-piracy efforts as it is a prominent issue and a common area that serves everyone’s interests,” Mr Ho told The Straits Times.
“But North Korea is less likely to respond (to Seoul’s engagement efforts). Even for the previously more engaging Moon (Jae-in) government, the North had shown it preferred talking directly to the US.
“President Yoon’s government has said it will take a harder line, so I don’t see the North re-engaging with Seoul so soon.”
The plenary session - Common challenges for Asia-Pacific and European defence - was also helmed by another two panellists, Dutch Defence Minister Kajsa Ollongren and former British national security adviser Mark Sedwill.
Ms Ollongren, the first Dutch defence minister to speak at the Shangri-La Dialogue, drew links between the Ukraine war and Asia.
She said Europe’s lessons from the war make European countries “better partners for Asia” and that the impact of the war extends far beyond Europe.
“The whole world risks stagflation. Global security and the global economy are at risk and all because of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s territorial war.”
Mr Sedwill agreed that Russian aggression in Ukraine risks causing geopolitical crises and food and energy insecurity, with nations in the Middle East, Africa and Asia “highly dependent upon Ukrainian and Russian grain”.
The panellists agreed on the need for European and Asian nations to observe an international rule-based order, unlike violators such as Mr Putin who operate in “the law of the jungle”.
Mr Sedwill, who was a Cabinet minister for two prime ministers, added that security concerns could arise over new battlefields less bound by territorial domains, including the cyberspace and information space, and called on countries not to reduce interdependencies but use “collective action” to tackle weaknesses in supply chains.