SEOUL/BEIJING – South Korea will never tolerate North Korea as a nuclear state and will never possess nuclear weapons itself, President Moon Jae-in said on Wednesday, and Beijing pledged to work on denuclearization after setting aside a dispute with Seoul over an anti-missile system.
The North Korea nuclear crisis will take center stage when U.S. President Donald Trump begins a trip to Asia at the end of the week, and diplomacy has being ramping up ahead of that visit.
A series of weapons tests by Pyongyang and a string of increasingly bellicose exchanges between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in recent months have raised fears about an armed conflict.
Speaking to the National Assembly, Moon said there can be no military action on the Korean Peninsula without the South’s consent, adding that the government will continue working for peace.
“According to the joint denuclearization declaration made by North and South Korea, we cannot tolerate or recognize North Korea as a nuclear state. We also will not develop nuclear (weapons) or own them,” he said.
“Our government was launched in the most serious of times in terms of security. The government is making efforts to stably manage the situation it faces as well as to bring about peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
South Korean media and opposition politicians have called for U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, which were withdrawn from the peninsula in the 1990s, to be returned.
Some have suggested that if Washington does not agree — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis expressed doubts about the concept in a visit last weekend — Seoul should develop a nuclear capability of its own, in order to ensure what they dub a “balance of terror” on the peninsula.
But Moon said in his address that Seoul’s approach would be “based on the joint declaration to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula declared by both Koreas” in 1992.
Two years after the two Koreas agreed not to develop nuclear arsenals, the North forged a deal with the U.S. on denuclearization in exchange for aid.
The 1994 deal fell apart in 2002 — after Washington raised suspicions that Pyongyang was secretly pursuing nuclear arms, the North walked out and resumed its atomic weapons program.
Pyongyang carried out its first atomic test in 2006 and has made significant progress in its weapons technology under Kim, who has overseen four atomic blasts and numerous missile tests since inheriting power in 2011.
Trump has warned of “fire and fury” against the North and spoke of a “calm before the storm.”
But Moon insisted there can be no U.S. military action without Seoul’s agreement, saying Koreans have to “determine the fate of our nation ourselves.”
“There should be no military action on the peninsula without our prior consent,” he said.
“We will not repeat the tragic history like colonization and division during which the fate of our nation was determined regardless of our will,” he added.
Meanwhile, China’s Foreign Ministry said Beijing and Seoul will continue to use diplomatic means to address the Korean Peninsula issue, after a meeting in Beijing between Lee Do-hoon, South Korea’s representative in stalled six-party nuclear talks, and his Chinese counterpart, Kong Xuanyou.
Moon’s remarks and China’s statement came a day after China and South Korea agreed to normalize relations to end a yearlong standoff over the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system.
The installation of THAAD had angered China, which feared its powerful radar could see deep into China. South Korea’s tourism, cosmetics and entertainment industries bore the brunt of a Chinese backlash, although Beijing has never specifically linked that to the THAAD deployment.
North Korea’s state media had no comment on the shift in ties between South Korea and China as of midday on Wednesday. The North has not engaged in missile tests since mid-September or any nuclear tests since its biggest one, on Sept. 3.
A senior Blue House official said warmer bilateral ties seemed to be due to Beijing trusting Seoul more. China has expressed concerns about possible additional deployments of a U.S. anti-missile defense system and about military cooperation among South Korea, the United States and Japan.
Earlier this week, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa said South Korea has no intention to join a U.S. missile-defense system in the region and would not host additional THAAD batteries. South Korea will not enter any trilateral military alliance with the United States and Japan, Kang added.
The United States is deciding whether three aircraft carriers currently in the region will carry out an exercise to coincide with Trump’s trip, two U.S. officials said. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force is considering sending one or more ships to the exercise if it is held, a government source said.
Trump’s trip includes Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing but he will not go to the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, a senior White House official said.
China’s top newspaper, the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, wrote in a commentary on Wednesday that China expects South Korea to take seriously its responsibility to protect regional peace now that they have set relations back on the correct track.
“The appropriate handling of the THAAD issue by China and South Korea can provide an opportunity for both countries to increase cooperation and communication on the peninsula issue,” it said.
But an influential state-run tabloid, the Global Times, warned that there would not be an immediate improvement in cultural and business ties, with South Korean firms having to make an effort to win back Chinese customers. “Whether or not Chinese consumers buy South Korean products is not totally up the Chinese government,” it said in an editorial.
The rapprochement means both countries were able to walk away with gains, said John Delury, professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
“It is arguably Moon’s first foreign policy breakthrough, giving South Korea’s economy a boost and enhancing his geopolitical leverage by strengthening the relationship with China,” said Delury.
“But Xi can also claim a victory — he made his point that Seoul needs to factor China’s interests more seriously into its security posture, at least when it comes to things like missile defense that can alter the regional balance of power.”