US Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with her colleagues from South Korea and Japan on Wednesday, highlighting the US’s commitment to defending its allies and trilateral security cooperation to counter the growing nuclear threat from North Korea. offer.
The last top-level meetings between the countries came as North Korea apparently continues to prepare for its first nuclear test explosion in nearly five years, which US officials say could happen in the coming days.
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After a meeting in Seoul, Sherman and the South Korean and Japanese vice ministers of foreign affairs issued a joint statement condemning North Korea’s provocative propensity for weapons demonstrations this year and pledged closer security cooperation to contain growing threats. .
The statement said Sherman reaffirmed the US’ “steadfast” commitment to the defense of South Korea and Japan, including “comprehensive deterrence,” referring to an assurance to defend its allies with its full military capabilities, including nuclear.
“The United States, the Republic of Korea and Japan are fully and closely associated with the DPRK,” Sherman said at a news conference, using the initials of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Sherman noted that since last September, North Korea has significantly increased the pace and scale of its ballistic launches, posing a “serious threat” to security in the region and beyond, and urged Pyongyang to stop using it. taking “these provocative and destabilizing actions and committing to the path of diplomacy.”
North Korea, shocking an old pattern of brinkmanship, has already set an annual record for ballistic launches in the first six months of 2022, firing 31 missiles during 18 test events, including the first demonstrations of intercontinental ballistic missiles since 2017.
The unusually fast pace of testing activities underscores authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un’s twin intentions to increase his arsenal and pressure the Biden administration over long-stalled negotiations aimed at using nuclear weapons for economic and security concessions, say experts.
Sherman’s visit to Asia came after North Korea launched eight ballistic missiles into the sea from multiple locations in its largest one-day test event ever on Sunday, prompting the US and its Asian allies to respond with tit-for-tat missile launches and aerial photos. . demonstrations with dozens of fighter jets.
A nuclear test would further escalate North Korea’s pressure campaign and could potentially allow the country to claim it has acquired the technology to build a bomb small enough to be clustered on a multi-warhead ICBM. or on Kim’s wide array of short-range weapons threatening South Korea and Japan.
South Korean and US officials have said the North is nearing completion of preparations for an explosion at its nuclear testing site in the remote northeastern city of Punggye-ri, an assessment supported by the International Atomic Energy, which says there is evidence that a of the site’s passages have been reopened. The site had been inactive since hosting the country’s sixth nuclear test in September 2017, when it claimed it detonated a thermonuclear bomb designed for its ICBMs.
North Korea is likely to time the test to maximize political effect, and some analysts say it could take place around a major conference of the ruling Workers’ Party that is vaguely scheduled for the first half of June.
North Korea’s state media said on Wednesday that members of the politburo met a day earlier to discuss the agenda for an upcoming plenary meeting of the party’s Central Committee, called by Kim to discuss important state affairs, including national efforts to slow down a COVID-19 outbreak. † He could also use the meeting to discuss his nuclear weapons ambitions and external relations with Washington and Seoul, experts say.
Kim’s absence from Tuesday’s preparatory meeting suggests he is focusing on overseeing preparations for North Korea’s seventh nuclear test and drafting his speeches for the plenary, said Sejong Institute analyst Cheong Seong-Chang. in South Korea.
The North Korean party’s previous plenary meeting in December lasted a record five days and saw Kim reiterate his vow to increase his country’s military capabilities and order the production of more powerful and advanced weapon systems.
Nuclear talks between the US and North Korea have stalled since 2019 amid disagreements over an easing of crippling US-led sanctions in return for North Korean disarmament moves, underscoring Kim’s reluctance to give away an arsenal that he sees it as his strongest guarantee of survival.
Kim’s government has so far rejected the Biden administration’s offers for open negotiations and clearly intends to turn the lingering denuclearization negotiations into a mutual arms reduction process, experts say.
Read more: North Korea could conduct nuclear test ‘any moment’: US envoy