Senior defense officials from South Korea, the United States and other nations on Tuesday warned North Korea over its nuclear ambitions and threats, vowing an unspecified collective response to any war-like aggression by the North toward its rival.
Their joint statement came after a meeting in Seoul involving U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik and officials from 16 other countries under the U.S.-led United Nations Command, which provided combat or medical forces in support of the South during the 1950-53 Korean War.
The meeting came a day after Austin and Shin held annual defense talks where the allies updated a bilateral security agreement with the aim of more effectively countering North Korea’s evolving nuclear and missile threats.
In the statement, the defense ministers and other representatives of the U.N. Command’s member states strongly condemned North Korea’s “unlawful” nuclear and ballistic missile programs which violate multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and called for Pyongyang to recommit to diplomacy aimed at defusing the nuclear standoff.
The U.N. Command’s member states also declared “they will be united upon any renewal of hostilities or armed attack on the Korean Peninsula challenging the principles of the United Nations and the security of (South Korea).”
Shin during a speech at the meeting said the North would face a “strong response from the international community centered on the U.N. Command” if it ever attempts to invade the South again. He also issued a veiled warning against Pyongyang’s growing alignment with Russia and China, as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un tries to break out of diplomatic isolation and insert Pyongyang as part of a united front against Washington.
“If the countries that supported North Korea during the Korean War offer to do so again, they too will face the same punishment as North Korea,” Shin said.
The Korean War was triggered by a North Korean sneak attack on the South in June 1950. The North was backed by forces from the newly formed People’s Republic of China, which was aided by the then-Soviet Union’s air force.
South Korea, the United States and troops from various countries under the direction of the United Nations fought to push back the invasion before the fighting was halted by an armistice in 1953, leaving the Korean Peninsula in a technical state of war. The U.N. Command has since remained in the South to enforce and maintain the armistice.
Before Tuesday’s meeting, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry condemned the event as reflecting a “dangerous scheme to ignite a new war of aggression.” The North’s state media also criticized the visits by Austin and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who traveled to Seoul last week, calling them “warmongers” bringing a “new war cloud” to Asia.
Animosity between the Koreas has spiked in recent months after Kim ramped up his weapons demonstrations, including events he described as simulated nuclear attacks on the South. He also authorized his military to launch preemptive nuclear strikes against enemies if it perceives Pyongyang’s top leadership to be under threat.
South Korea has responded by expanding its combined military exercises with the United States as well as trilateral security cooperation with Japan. Seoul has also been seeking stronger public assurances from Washington that the United States would swiftly and decisively use its nuclear weapons to protect the South in case of a North Korean nuclear attack.
In the allies’ latest drills, South Korea’s military said Tuesday it deployed warships, patrol aircraft and fighter jets to train with U.S. vessels and aircraft in a joint anti-submarine and counter special-operations exercise in South Korea’s eastern seas. The training continues through Thursday.
Austin and Shin on Monday signed a new version of the Tailored Deterrence Strategy agreement, which was revised for the first time in a decade to address the growing threat of the North’s nuclear program.
Shin said the new document spells out that the United States would mobilize its full range of military capabilities, including nuclear, to defend the South in the event of a North Korean nuclear attack. He also said the document will provide a template for the allies to strategize how South Korea could assist U.S. nuclear operations in such events with its conventional capabilities but didn’t elaborate further.
While Kim is also trying to strengthen relations with China, Russia has been his primary focus. A flurry of diplomacy between the countries, highlighted by a September summit between Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin, has triggered concerns about an arms arrangement in which North Korea provides badly needed munitions for the Russian war in Ukraine in exchange for Russian technology transfers that would upgrade Kim’s military nuclear program.
A Russian delegation led by Alexander Kozlov, the minister of natural resources, arrived at Pyongyang’s airport Tuesday. While The Associated Press photographed the arrival, the North’s state media did not immediately release details of the visit.
In written responses to questions from AP, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said he will discuss the international response to the purported weapons deal between North Korea and Russia during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco this week. He said such military cooperation not only poses a serious threat to the security of Asia and Europe but also undermines the rules-based international order.
Both Pyongyang and Moscow have denied U.S. and South Korean claims that the North has been supplying munitions and military equipment to Russia.