South Korea, Japan not quite on same denuclearisation page

Japan's Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera (left) said North Korea must not be rewarded for agreeing to dialogue, while his South Korean counterpart Song Young Moo said dialogue will never make progress if the focus was on disagreement. PHOTOS: AFP

Being suspicious of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's intentions will get in the way of the peace process, said South Korean Defence Minister Song Young Moo on Saturday (June 2), minutes after his Japanese counterpart Itsunori Onodera warned security analysts of North Korea's past duplicity.

Though both defence ministers sat side by side at a panel on de-escalating the North Korean crisis at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit, they displayed subtle differences in their approach towards the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

Mr Onodera raised historical examples in his speech, saying: "We've seen history repeat when North Korea would declare to denuclearise, thereby portraying itself as conciliatory and forthcoming, only to turn around and avoid all international efforts towards peace."

For instance, he noted that North Korea promised to give up all nuclear weapons and its existing nuclear programmes in the 2005 Six-Party talks, but went ahead with its first nuclear experiment in 2006 and halted its ballistic missile launches only last year.

Said Mr Onodera: "In light of how North Korea has behaved in the past, I believe it is important not to reward North Korea solely for agreeing to have a dialogue."

But Mr Song, during the question-and-answer session, said: "The times are different. North Korea has a new leader now. And I believe that North Korea is looking to change the course of history and is making a decisive action towards that.

"Just because we have been tricked by North Korea before does not guarantee we will be tricked in the future. If we start to think like this, then we can never negotiate with them and we can never look to achieve peace with them," he said.

The session came hours after United States President Donald Trump announced that the summit between US and North Korea will go ahead as originally scheduled on June 12 in Singapore.

The defence ministers also tackled the issue of what complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula would entail, in response to security analysts who asked if North Korea would be prepared to give up its hard-won arsenal, and if other countries would be able to accept North Korea retaining its short-range ballistic missiles, for instance.

Mr Onodera said: "Our common understanding is that short-range missiles are included under all ballistic missiles and need to be abandoned. This is what we're going to demand from North Korea."

But Mr Song said he believed that "such threats will eventually dissipate over time" as North Korea joins the international community and forms diplomatic ties with the free world.

"There's no reason for them to develop and maintain a weapon they do not need to use because this puts a limit on the resources they could be using for economic development," he added.

Both South Korea and the United States also stated that the question of whether US troops would remain in South Korea was separate from the denuclearisation issue.

At an earlier session, US Defence Secretary James Mattis said that US troops' presence in South Korea "is not on the table on June 12, nor should it be".

Likewise, Mr Song said: "The US forces in Korea is a separate issue from North Korea's nuclear issue. US forces stay in the Korean peninsula to maintain stability and peace in the Korean peninsula and North-east Asia."

Japan was firm that pressure on North Korea to denuclearise should remain in place, even as it noted President Trump's latest comments that he looked forward to the day he could take sanctions off North Korea.

Speaking to the media after North Korean envoy Kim Yong Chol visited the White House to deliver him a letter on Friday, Mr Trump said: "I don't even want to use the term maximum pressure anymore."

At the summit, Mr Onodera also said that the international community and defence authorities should ensure North Korea continues to rid itself of its nuclear weapons even after it begins taking concrete steps to begin denuclearisation.

He offered Japan's experience and help with weapons inspections.

Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan, another member of the panel, also agreed that while the past few months of diplomatic detente were steps in the right direction, "we must not forget that anything short of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation is unacceptable".

He added that there was no plan to seek regime change or the collapse of North Korea, so long as the country agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons.

Mr Song was in agreement on this point, saying that South Korea had no desire for the North's collapse, nor reunification through artificial means.

"Success is dependent on the international community's consistent approach. We urge the international community to stand in unity to make sure North Korea continues along the path of denuclearisation," said Mr Song.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.