SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - One of the top-ranked conservatives seeking to be South Korea's next president said the United States was "reckless" in its diplomacy with North Korea and questioned if the American ally's nuclear shield offered real protection.
"America is approaching North Korea in a naive way," Mr Hong Joon-pyo, a leading candidate from the People Power Party, said in an interview with Bloomberg on Wednesday (Sept 15), where he criticised the Joe Biden administration for trying to prod Pyongyang back to stalled nuclear talks.
"If you look at the way the US approaches North Korea with diplomacy, they've gotten dragged into their ways," he said, adding that Pyongyang "will never back down, it'll just pretend to back down".
Mr Hong, who launched a failed campaign for presidency in the last election in 2017, is offering a sharp-right turn in foreign policy that includes his long-sought goal of returning nuclear weapons to South Korea, and for Seoul to look into building its own nuclear programme.
He wants a clean break from the current progressive government of President Moon Jae-in, who has sought reconciliation with Pyongyang and advocated peaceful relations.
While Mr Moon has sought talks, leader Kim Jong Un has been firing off new types of missiles designed to strike all of South Korea, which included a test on Wednesday of what appeared to be short-range ballistic missiles that North Korea said were launched from a train.
Mr Hong said the test was not surprising and underscored the threat South Korea faced from the North's arsenal of missiles, which can strike the country and neutralise the US' nuclear defence network.
President Biden's envoy, Mr Sung Kim, was in Tokyo this week for discussions and told Pyongyang the door was open for it to return to nuclear disarmament talks that have been stalled for more than two years.
Mr Hong said Mr Biden should open the door instead to bringing back nuclear weapons to South Korea, giving Seoul a say in ordering nuclear strikes and suggesting that, if elected, his government would consider developing its own nuclear weapons programme if Washington does not bend.
"Nukes can only be countered with nukes," he said, adding that "the balance of terror via nuclear weapons was achieved in Europe".
"The inter-Korean front is more dangerous place than Europe, " he said.
Polls have shown support for Mr Hong and his position on nuclear weapons. An Opinion Research Justice survey on Tuesday showed that 31.4 per cent of respondents preferred Mr Hong as presidential candidate for the conservative party, about 3 percentage points higher than the No. 2 conservative contender - former prosecutor chief Yoon Seok-youl.
When it comes to acquiring nuclear weapons, a survey by Seoul-based think-tank Asan Institute for Policy Studies showed that 69.3 per cent supported the move - an increase from 2010 when it was 55.6 per cent.
The United States deployed nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula between 1958 and 1991, the Congressional Research Service said. The US now covers South Korea in its so-called nuclear umbrella, where it can protect allies with strikes by land, air or sea from America's atomic arsenal. North Korea has bristled for decades about any nuclear assets that could be used to attack it.
China, South Korea's biggest trading partner, has let its neighbours know to tread carefully about deploying US systems that could alter the region's strategic balance. Beijing has warned any country accepting the deployment of intermediate-range American missiles that it would face retaliation.
Seoul felt China's wrath about five years ago when Beijing hit parts of its economy for agreeing to accept Lockheed Martin's Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, or Thaad, anti-missile system for defence against North Korea.