South Korea’s Yoon Advocates Resolute Stance Against North Korea’s Nuclear Aspirations at NATO Summit

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Seoul, South Korea(Reuters) – President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea is set to address the expanding weapons arsenal of North Korea and seek strong international determination to deter its nuclear ambitions at the annual NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. As part of his two-nation trip, President Yoon will participate in the summit on Tuesday and Wednesday, emphasizing the importance of international cooperation against North Korea’s illegal activities.

President Yoon’s attendance at the NATO summit for the second consecutive year highlights his commitment to deepening ties with the world’s largest military alliance. South Korea faces a range of security challenges, including North Korea’s nuclear program and the strategic rivalry between the United States and China. Last year, President Yoon became the first South Korean leader to attend a NATO summit when he participated in Spain.

In his written responses to questions, President Yoon emphasized that South Korea would stress the significance of international cooperation in countering North Korea’s illegal actions during the NATO meeting. He also revealed that a new NATO-South Korea document would come into effect at the summit, formalizing cooperation in 11 areas, including non-proliferation and cybersecurity.

North Korea’s relentless pursuit of reliable nuclear weapons has gained urgency following its test flights of over 100 missiles and explicit threats to use nuclear weapons in potential conflicts with South Korea and the United States since last year. Although the presence of functional nuclear missiles in North Korea remains a subject of debate, South Korean government estimates from 2018 suggested that North Korea already possessed up to 60 nuclear warheads. Experts believe that North Korea has the capacity to add six to 18 new warheads annually.

In response to North Korea’s missile tests, President Yoon, a conservative leader who assumed office in 2022, has taken steps to enhance South Korea’s own missile capabilities and expand military exercises with the United States. In April, President Yoon and President Joe Biden announced plans to strengthen their countries’ deterrence capabilities, including the periodic docking of a U.S. nuclear-armed submarine in South Korea and the establishment of a new bilateral nuclear consultative group, with its inaugural meeting scheduled for next week in Seoul.

North Korea’s Defense Ministry issued a warning on Monday, stating that the deployment of the U.S. submarine could provoke “the worst crisis of nuclear conflict in practice” and threatened to shoot down U.S. spy planes. South Korea’s military, on the other hand, affirmed its readiness to repel potential North Korean provocations.

Discussions regarding North Korea between President Yoon and NATO leaders may elicit a backlash from the country itself, which has criticized the increasing cooperation between NATO and U.S. allies in Asia as an effort to create an “Asian version of NATO” that would heighten regional tensions.

North Korea argues that its weapons testing serves as a warning against the expanded South Korean-U.S. military exercises, which it perceives as invasion rehearsals. President Yoon asserts his commitment to peace through strength, while remaining open to dialogue with North Korea. He added that strong international sanctions against North Korea have hindered the advancement of its nuclear and missile capabilities.

During the summit in Vilnius, President Yoon expects to have several opportunities to engage in discussions with President Biden on various topics, including strengthening the U.S. security commitment and expanding trilateral security cooperation among Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo. He also plans to hold a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, addressing bilateral relations, mutual solidarity, and international cooperation.

Relations between South Korea and Japan have significantly improved in recent months, with President Yoon taking steps toward resolving a longstanding dispute over Japan’s mobilization of forced Korean laborers during the colonial era. The meeting between President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida in Vilnius is expected to touch upon Japan’s contentious plan to release treated wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, a move that has been approved by the U.N. nuclear watchdog but faces opposition from neighboring countries.

At the NATO summit, leaders are anticipated to provide further assistance in modernizing Ukraine’s armed forces as the ongoing Russian invasion continues. They are also expected to establish a high-level forum for consultations and reaffirm Ukraine’s eventual membership in the alliance.

President Yoon stated that South Korea has already provided humanitarian and financial support to Ukraine and is currently working on the supply of de-mining equipment, ambulances, and other materials, as per Ukraine’s request. Although South Korea, as a growing arms exporter, adheres to its policy of not supplying weapons to countries engaged in active conflict, leaked U.S. intelligence documents earlier this year indicated discussions between the United States and South Korea over providing artillery ammunition to Ukraine.