SEOUL (REUTERS, AFP) - North Korea's recent missile tests were "serious, unlawful" provocations, senior officials from South Korea, the United States and Japan said on Wednesday (June 8), urging Pyongyang to return to dialogue and accept offers of Covid-19 aid.
South Korea vice-foreign minister Cho Hyun-dong, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Mori made the comment as they gathered in Seoul three days after North Korea conducted a fresh missile test.
The three-way meeting of the countries’ No. 2 diplomats, the first such gathering since November and the first since South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol took office in May, highlighted the urgency and gravity of North Korea’s intensifying weapons tests.
Mr Mori’s visit also marked such trip by the Japanese vice foreign minister since late 2017 amid strained bilateral ties over issues including Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula and war-time labour.
Seoul and Washington officials have said North Korea is ready for what would be its first nuclear test since 2017, which Ms Sherman has said would trigger a strong and clear response.
The trio urged Pyongyang to abide by international sanctions and immediately cease actions that “escalate tensions or destabilise the region,” a joint statement said.
They also pledged to ramp up trilateral security cooperation to curb the North’s threats, with Ms Sherman reaffirming the US defence commitments, including extended deterrence.
“They stressed that a path to serious and sustained dialogue remains open and urged the DPRK to return to negotiations, while also expressing their hope that the DPRK will respond positively to international offers of assistance to fight against Covid-19,” the statement said, referring to North Korea by its the initials of its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
North Korea has carried out at least 18 rounds of weapons tests this year, underscoring its evolving nuclear and missile arsenals. In its latest test, North Korea fired eight short-range ballistic missiles, likely its largest single launch, a day after South Korea and the United States ended joint military drills involving an American aircraft carrier.
The allies launched eight surface-to-surface missiles on Monday in their own show of force responding to the North’s test.
President Yoon and US President Joe Biden vowed at their recent summit to deploy more US strategic military assets as part of efforts to bolster the extended deterrence.
North Korea has been grappling with its first confirmed coronavirus outbreak since last month. It has reported more than 4.2 million patients with fever symptoms among its 25 million population, but never confirmed how many tested positive for the virus, lacking in test kits and medical supplies.
Seoul and Washington said they had respectively offered Covid-19 aid but Pyongyang did not respond, even as the World Health Organisation warned of a worsening Covid-19 situation there.
“The United States remains prepared to meet the DPRK without preconditions and we iterate again, we have no possible intent towards the DPRK,” Ms Sherman told a joint news conference.
Seoul officials have said Pyongyang has conducted multiple experiments with a detonation device in preparation for its seventh underground nuclear explosion.
The nuclear test could come as early as next week ahead of a planned plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s powerful central committee, some analysts said.
“The meeting is primarily designed to review economy and other policy issues, but it could also touch on nuclear policy,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of South Korea’s Sejong Institute’s North Korea studies centre, referring to previous meetings held shortly after nuclear tests in 2013 and 2017.
On Tuesday, a US diplomat said North Korea ignored multiple US overtures for discussions as well as offers to help in its Covid-19 outbreak.
Mr Sung Kim, the US Special Representative to North Korea, said the country has not responded to months of public and private communications seeking to engage over tensions.
President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have repeatedly said publicly that Washington seeks diplomatic talks with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea "without preconditions," Mr Kim said.
"We have also reached out to pass this message through private channels as well. This includes high-level personal messages from senior US officials to senior DPRK officials," he told reporters in a briefing.
"Over the past year, we have sent such messages in multiple ways, through third parties, directly in writing," he added, noting that included North Korea neighbour China. Such messages included specific proposals on humanitarian cooperation and assistance with the recent Covid-19 outbreak in North Korea, said Mr Kim.
"However, to date, the DPRK has not responded and continues to show no indication that is interested in engaging," he said.