Asia Pacific / Politics

Weak U.S.-North Korea deal may bolster Seoul's need for its own nukes: opposition leader

Bloomberg, AP, Kyodo, AFP-JIJI

The leader of South Korea’s main opposition party has warned that calls for acquiring nuclear weapons could grow in Seoul if U.S. talks with North Korea fall short of the regime’s complete denuclearization.

Liberty Korea legislative leader Na Kyung-Won said in an interview in Seoul that a “small deal” with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un risk bolstering demands for the U.S. to redeploy its own nuclear weapons to the peninsula.

She said she planned to convey her party’s desire for the dismantlement and inspection of Pyongyang’s weapons program during an expected visit to Washington ahead of U.S. President Donald Trump’s planned summit with Kim.

“If the United States accepts North Korea as the de facto nuclear state through a small deal, acquiring nuclear weapons is the only viable path for us, some people argue,” said Na, 55. “With a small deal, demand for deploying strategic nuclear weapons will increase.”

Na’s remarks illustrate concern among South Korean conservatives as President Moon Jae-in, a progressive, pushes ties between the rivals to unprecedented levels.

The opposition, which is trying to rebuild after former President Park Geun-hye’s 2017 removal and subsequent corruption conviction, has long taken a more skeptical view of Kim’s intentions.

“Nowhere do we see in the last year’s process the denuclearization of North Korea,” Na said. “We only see denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula on the North’s terms.”

Na spoke before U.S. special envoy Stephen Biegun said that North Korea had committed to dismantling its all its uranium- and plutonium-enrichment facilities, a sign that Trump is seeking clearer disarmament steps from the upcoming Kim summit.

Kim has made no pledges to let North Korea’s arsenal be inspected or dismantled since agreeing to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” in his first meeting with Trump in June.

Biegun was expected to arrive Sunday in South Korea for more talks, including meetings with his North Korean counterpart, the State Department said.

Na, a former judge and four-term lawmaker, became the conservative party’s first female floor leader in December. She led the National Assembly’s foreign policy committee from 2015 to 2016, when Park signed a controversial deal accepting Japanese compensation for “comfort women” in exchange for an apology that many South Koreans believe fell short. “Comfort women” were victims of the Japanese military brothel system before and during World War II.

“The comfort women deal led to the first official apology, which was meaningful in the history of diplomacy,” she said about the deal. But she said the government was “too hasty in seeking an agreement” and didn’t sufficiently reflect the desires of the victims.

The conservative bloc’s approval rate recovered to 21 percent earlier in the week, according to Gallup Korea, exceeding the 20 percent level for the first time since Park’s impeachment. Support for Moon’s Democratic Party was 39 percent, the second week in a row it was below the 40 percent mark.

Na said the opposition party would put forward a corporate tax cut as a central agenda item during the assembly’s session this month.

Both sides of South Korea’s political divide are united in concern over U.S. demands that the country pay as much as 50 percent more for U.S. military protection. The dispute caused their cost-sharing deal to lapse on Dec. 31 and if it is not renewed soon, South Korean civilian personnel could face furloughs as soon as April.

Na warned that the United States’ position in Asia could be weakened if such disagreements are left unchecked. Any cost-sharing deal must be ratified by the National Assembly and the U.S. Congress.

“If this problem goes on the wrong track, it could cause anti-U.S. sentiment,” Na said. “The South Korean public believes that there is an excessive demand to increase the payment from the U.S. government.”

U.S. intelligence agency chiefs told Congress earlier in the week that North Korea is unlikely to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and also that the Iran nuclear deal is working — both contrary to what Trump has claimed.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and other officials presented an update to the Senate intelligence committee on Tuesday on their annual assessment of global threats. In a public report and the testimony, they warned of an increasingly diverse range of security dangers around the globe, from North Korea’s nuclear weapons to Chinese cyberespionage to Russian campaigns to undermine Western democracies.

At the hearing, Coats said intelligence information does not support the idea that Kim will eliminate his nuclear weapons.

Trump later insisted on Twitter that the U.S. relationship with North Korea “is the best it has ever been.” He pointed to the North’s halt in nuclear and missile tests, the return of some U.S. service members’ remains and the release of detained Americans as signs of progress.

On Friday, Trump said the United States was withdrawing from a 1987 nuclear arms control treaty with Russia in response to alleged violations by Moscow. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said in October that the pact is outdated because it does not cover China, Iran and North Korea, all of which have been beefing up their missile capabilities.

The North’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs have led to strict U.N. sanctions on trade with it. A California cosmetics firm, E.L.F., became the most recent violator on Friday, when the U.S. Treasury Department announced that the company had agreed to pay a nearly $1 million fine for importing fake eyelashes containing materials from the North.

Between 2012 and 2017, the company imported “156 shipments of false eyelash kits from two suppliers located in the People’s Republic of China that contained materials sourced by these suppliers” from North Korea, the Treasury said in a statement. “E.L.F.’s compliance program and its supplier audits failed to discover that approximately 80 percent of the false eyelash kits supplied by two of E.L.F.’s China-based suppliers contained materials” from the North.

The company faced more than $40 million in penalties but the Treasury took into account mitigating circumstances including the small amount involved and the fact that E.L.F. reported the violation of sanctions.