The Russian president Vladimir Putin has warned that the escalating North Korea crisis could cause a “planetary catastrophe” and huge loss of life.
“It could lead to a global, planetary catastrophe and a huge loss of human life. There is no other way to solve the North Korean nuclear issue, save that of peaceful dialogue.”
Speaking on the final day of the Brics summit in Xiamen, China, Putin said foreign interventions in Iraq and Libya had convinced North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that he needed nuclear weapons to survive: “They will eat grass but will not stop their program as long as they do not feel safe.”
Putin’s warning came as South Korea refused to rule out redeploying US tactical nuclear weapons on its territory – a move that could seriously harm efforts to ease tensions as signs emerged that Pyongyang was preparing to launch another intercontinental ballistic missile.
Seoul has routinely dismissed the option of basing US nuclear weapons on South Korean soil for the first time since the 1990s, but the country’s defence minister, Song Young-moo, said “all available military options” were being considered to address the growing threat from North Korean missiles.
On Tuesday, South Korean warships conducted live-fire drills at sea, with more exercises planned this week. “If the enemy launches a provocation above water or under water, we will immediately hit back to bury them at sea,” Captain Choi Young-chan, commander of the 13th Maritime Battle Group, said in a statement.
It came hours after Donald Trump and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, agreed to remove restrictions on the size of Seoul’s missile warheads and approved a deal to sell the nation “many billions of dollars’” worth of US military weapons and equipment.
The defence minister raised the possibility of redeploying US nuclear weapons in the wake of the North’s sixth nuclear test in remarks to the South’s national assembly, according to the Yonhap news agency.
But his remarks were later clarified with spokesman Moon Sang-gyun saying there was “no change” in Seoul’s principle of working towards the complete denuclearisation of the peninsula.
Moon said the minister had simply been stressing the need to “review all available options from the military perspective and find a realistic way forwards”.
Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul, said: “No one in South Korea is seriously proposing that the US reintroduce strategic assets,” such as nuclear weapons. “That’s something they might discuss further down the line, but there are no plans for that to happen right now.”
Calls have also been growing in South Korea for the country to develop a nuclear deterrent independent of the US.
Song’s comments came amid reports that North Korea may be preparing to launch another intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from a site on its west coast.
North Korea has been observed moving what appeared to be an ICBM towards its west coast, according to South Korea’s Asia Business Daily. The paper claimed the missile had been transported towards the launch site overnight on Monday to avoid surveillance.
South Korea’s defence ministry said it was unable to confirm the report, although ministry officials told parliament on Monday the regime was preparing to launch more missiles.
While South Korea’s presidential office insisted the reintroduction of US tactical nuclear weapons was not under consideration, Seoul put on a display of military power for the second day running.In the past, North Korea has displayed its military capability to coincide with significant national anniversaries. That is fuelling speculation an ICBM launch could come as early as this Saturday, when the country’s marks the 69th anniversary of its founding. The regime’s fifth nuclear test came on the same date, 9 September, last year.
The drills, carried out a day after it mounted a simulated attack by F-15 fighter jets and land-based ballistic missiles on North Korea’s Punggye-rinuclear testing site, were designed to send a “strong warning” following Sunday’s nuclear test, said Seoul.
A 2,500-ton frigate, a 1,000-ton patrol ship and 400-ton guided-missile vessels took part in exercises off the eastern coast, the defence ministry said, adding that more naval drills were planned later this week.
Washington appears to have moved to ease South Korean doubts about America’s commitment to its security after Donald Trump openly accused its east Asian ally of “appeasing” Pyongyang by holding out for a negotiated solution to its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
Washington has agreed to remove warhead restrictions on South Korean missiles, allowing Seoul to develop more powerful weapons that would boost its pre-emptive strike capabilities against the North.
The move, agreed by Moon and Trump in a phone call late on Monday, removes the 500kg (1,100lb) warhead limit on South Korea’s maximum-range missiles agreed in 2001. That would leave the South free to develop more powerful weapons that could potentially be used to destroy underground military facilities and shelters in the North.
Trump also approved, in principle, the sale to South Korea of “many billions of dollars’” worth of US military weapons and equipment, according to a White House readout of the call.
South Korea was the fourth-biggest importer of US weapons between 2010-2016, buying nearly $5bn dollars of arms over that period, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Trump’s appeasement comment, together with his reported threat to take the US out of a free trade agreement with South Korea, have triggered calls for Seoul to win stronger security assurances from Washington.
In an editorial published on Tuesday, the Korea Herald said the South Korean government’s “most urgent job is to secure – based on a tight alliance with the US – defence and deterrence capability against possible nuclear and missile attacks from the North”.
The newspaper called for the quick deployment of the last four of six terminal high altitude area defense (Thaad) missile defence systems, but said that was only a first step.
“The allies also ought to discuss other actions that can achieve a ‘balance of terror,” it added, “like the deployment of US nuclear-capable strategic assets or even tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea”.
While South Korea demonstrates its ability to strike its neighbour, the diplomatic focus is expected to shift to the UN security council, which is due to vote on a resolution condemning the North’s latest nuclear test on Monday.
But one drastic measure reportedly under consideration by US officials – to ban oil exports to North Korea – is likely to be opposed by Russia and China.
Beijing supplies roughly 500,000 tons of crude oil to North Korea every year as well as 200,000 tons of oil products, according to South Korean and UN data.
China, the biggest supplier of crude oil to North Korea, opposes any measure that could cause instability and topple the regime of Kim Jong-un, sparking a refugee crisis and potentially allowing tens of thousands of South Korean and US troops to move north as far as the Chinese border.
On Monday, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, accused North Korea of “begging for war”, adding that the time had come for the security council to impose “the strongest possible” sanctions” after Sunday’s test of what Pyongyang claimed was a hydrogen bomb that could be loaded onto an ICBM.
“Enough is enough,” Haley said. “War is never something the United States wants. We don’t want it now. But our country’s patience is not unlimited.”
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