South Korea and the United States have agreed to muscle up with new and more powerful weapons in response to North Korea’s sixth nuclear test on the weekend, but a split has appeared within South Korea’s senior leadership over whether to bring American nuclear weapons back to the peninsula.
Media reports in South Korea suggested yesterday that North Korea’s rogue regime was moving a new intercontinental ballistic missile into place in time for a weekend launch.
A White House report of a phone call between South Korean president Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump agreed to scrap a warhead weight limit on South Korea’s missiles. Mr Trump gave “in principle approval” to the move, which would lift the 500kg weight limit and enable the South to strike North Korea with greater force in the event of a military conflict.
“We believe the unlimited warhead payload will be useful in responding to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats,” Defence Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun told a briefing on Tuesday.
Mr Trump also provided his “conceptual approval” for billions of dollars in new weapons sales to South Korea after North Korea’s largest nuclear test.
The South Korean defence minister Song said he had asked his American counterpart, Jim Mattis, during talks at the Pentagon last week that US aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and B-52 bombers be sent to South Korea more regularly.
“I told him that it would be good for strategic assets to be sent regularly to the Korean Peninsula and that some South Korean lawmakers and media are strongly pushing for tactical nuclear weapons [to be redeployed],” Song told a parliamentary hearing on North Korea’s nuclear test, without disclosing Mattis’s response.
“The redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons is an alternative worth a full review,” Song said.
But the South Korean president’s office said that it was not considering redeploying tactical nuclear weapons: “Our government’s firm stance on the nuclear-free peninsula remains unchanged,” said Kim Dong-jo, a spokesman for Moon.
Military experts in the United States are almost universally opposed to the idea of deploying strategic or tactical weapons in South Korea.
Mr Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will discuss the increasing tensions on the Korean peninsula in a call scheduled for 7.45am on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Mr Turnbull said of North Korea, “This is a very dangerous, reckless, provocative regime”.
“The need now is to enforce the toughest economic sanctions on North Korea. Now, the Security Council already has imposed sanctions and what they’re now considering is imposing even tougher ones. Really, that is the key to bringing the regime to its senses without conflict.”
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said Monday at a meeting of the UN Security Council that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was “begging for war” after testing what he claimed was a hydrogen bomb on the weekend.
“Only the strongest sanctions will enable us to resolve this problem through diplomacy,” she said.
South Korea’s navy held more drills on Tuesday as media reports citing an unidentified intelligence source suggested North Korea had been observed moving what appeared to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) towards its west coast.
The rocket started moving on Monday night, a day after North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, and was spotted moving at night to avoid surveillance, the report in Asia Business Daily said. North Korea has launch facilities for its missile program on its west coast.
There’s a high chance of a launch before the September 9 which is North Korea’s national foundation day, the Daily reported.
South Korea’s defence ministry said they were unable to confirm the contents of the report. The ministry said in Parliament on Monday that North Korea was considered ready to launch more missiles, including ICBMs, at any time.
Earlier South Korea’s navy conducted a live-fire exercise off the country’s eastern coast into waters between Korean peninsula and Japan. North Korea’s nuclear test site was the intended virtual target.
Seoul’s Defence Ministry said on Tuesday that 20 vessels warships including a 2500-tonne frigate, a 1000-tonne patrol ship and 400-tonne guided-missile vessels participated in drills aimed at retaliating against potential North Korean provocations.
Seoul says more naval drills are planned from Wednesday to Saturday in the country’s southern seas.
The South’s army and air force conducted a joint drill involving F-15 fighter jets and land-based ballistic missiles on Monday that simulated an attack on North Korea’s nuclear test site to “strongly warn” Pyongyang over its sixth and most powerful nuclear test to date.
It’s unclear if Trump had North Korea on his mind when he tweeted shortly after that, presumably he had, a “big week coming up”.
Haley said the U.S. will circulate new draft sanctions and wants the security council to vote on them September 11.
Chang Kyung-soo, acting chief of the Defence Ministry’s policy planning office, told lawmakers in Seoul on Monday that North Korea was readying a missile firing, but didn’t give a timeframe.
The Yonhap News Agency cited the South Korea’s spy agency as saying there is a chance Pyongyang could fire an ICBM into the Pacific Ocean. North Korea has previously threatened to launch missiles toward Guam.
South Korean Defence Ministry will review “various possible options” to find a “realistic” solution to North Korea’s threats, spokesman Moon Sang-gyun told reporters in Seoul on Tuesday.
South Korea has removed the final administrative hurdle for the full deployment of a US missile defence system known as THAAD, which China views as a threat to the region’s “strategic equilibrium”.
Haley reinforced Trump’s threat on Twitter to cut off trade with nations that do business with North Korea, though many observers say that would be an unlikely step. While the U.S. has often threatened a China trade war, Trump is yet to follow through, in part given the risk that would create for his own economy.
But China, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner, and Russia called for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
“China will never allow chaos and war on the [Korean] peninsula,” said Liu Jieyi, the Chinese ambassador to the UN, urging North Korea to stop taking actions that were “wrong” and not in its own interests.
Russia said peace in the region was in jeopardy.
“Sanctions alone will not help solve the issue,” Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said.
North Korea has been under UN sanctions since 2006 over its ballistic missile and nuclear programs. Typically, China and Russia only view a test of a long-range missile or a nuclear weapon as a trigger for further possible UN sanctions.