North Korea is “ready” to test a nuclear weapon and likely will, the South Korean prime minister has said.
Speaking exclusively to Sky News, Han Duck-soo said that while it is “difficult to know exactly when” a test will take place, “we believe they are ready”.
His comments come at a time when tensions on the korean peninsula are as high as they have been for several years.
In an extensive interview, Premier Han also said China’s recent relaxation of its strict zero COVID rules “should have happened sooner” and said he would like to see his powerful neighbor become “more rules-based”.
Premier Han’s statements on North Korea come in the final weeks of a year that has seen the state isolated fire more missilesincluding intercontinental ballistic missiles, than at any other time since leader Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011.
Last month, a missile landed at sea south of the “northern limit line”, which is the unofficial maritime border between the two countries, and closer than ever to the South Korean coast. Another flew over Japan.
If a nuclear test is undertaken, it will be the first since 2017 and it will be a major escalation at an already very tense time.
“We always have preparations for this kind of very unwanted action,” Premier Han said.
“We cannot say at this time what type of response will be given.
“But clearly we would like to have some sort of extended deterrent capabilities, including all sorts of options.”
North Korea has hinted that it is responding, in part, to large-scale joint military exercises held last month between South Korea and the United States, an action it sees as threatening and provocative.
South Korea has a relatively new president and a relatively new government. Yoon Suk-yeol was elected in March and has promised a more hawkish approach to North Korea.
His government has been accused of spoiling some progress made by the previous administration, where dialogue between the two countries had intensified.
“We will ensure peace on our terms”
This is a criticism totally dismissed by Prime Minister Han: “You may call our strengthening of our deterrence capabilities the ‘hardest line’, but it is a natural path for any country increasing the level of autonomy in terms of of security.
“We will secure our peace on our terms, not on terms dictated by North Korea.”
He also added information about recent images of Kim Jong Un appearing alongside his daughter.
She has accompanied him on recent missile launches and has never been seen in public before. She is believed to be nine or ten years old and some have speculated that she may be groomed for leadership.
“The launch of an intercontinental missile will undoubtedly be a great thing for North Korea,” Premier Han said.
“If he wants to show something, it would be a very good time.
“Maybe the appearance of his daughter, for him he would like to send a message.”
During the election campaign, Yoon Suk-yeol also hinted that he would take a tougher line on China and be more open about South Korea’s alliance with the United States.
As a nation, it has had to walk a tightrope between the two superpowers – China is by far its biggest trading partner and both have important roles to play in the North Korean issue.
While keen to underscore South Korea’s warm relationship with China, Premier Han spoke in blunt terms about the “very big impact” China’s zero COVID policy has had on South Korea and its economy. , saying “it should have ended sooner”.
He also said South Korea agreed with its US ally on some issues regarding China.
“South Korea and China are very, very intimate countries, and we will continue to do so,” he said.
“But Korea, together with the international community, would like to see China be more rules-based and a country that is more respectful of universal values.”
He has also been clearer than the previous administration on actively strengthening trilateral cooperation between the United States, Japan and South Korea. This is notable as it was previously considered a “red line” for China.
“Trilateral cooperation to ensure the security and prosperity of the Korean Peninsula will most definitely be a necessity for us,” he said.
Domestically, Premier Han noted that Korea, like many countries, faces pressing economic challenges, including inflation, a weak currency and high housing costs.
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But it is a nation which is playing an increasingly important role on the world stage and which is aware of its position.
He recently offered to host the 2030 World Expo in the southern city of Busan – with Han wanting to showcase South Korea’s “cooperation structure with other countries”.
But more action from North Korea is the eventuality that will most likely put it in the limelight.
Although South Korea insists it is committed to “dialogue”, the chances of a major de-escalation look increasingly dim.