SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Monday offered “bold” economic aid to North Korea if it scraps its nuclear weapons program while avoiding harsh criticism from the North days after threatening of “deadly” retaliation against the COVID-19 epidemic he blames the South.
In a speech celebrating the end of Japanese colonization of the Korean Peninsula, Yoon also called for better relations with Japan, calling on the two partner countries to meet the challenges of freedom and saying that their common values will help them overcome the difficulties. historical grievances related to Japan’s brutal colonial rule. before the end of World War II.
Yoon’s televised talk about the release holiday came days after North Korea claimed a widely disputed victory on COVID-19, but also blamed Seoul for the outbreak. The North insists that leaflets and other items flown across the border by activists are spreading the virus, an unscientific claim that Seoul calls “ridiculous”.
North Korea has a habit of increasing pressure on the South when it does not get what it wants from the United States, and there are fears that the threat from North Korea portends a provocation, which could possibly be a major nuclear or missile test or even border skirmishes. Some experts say the North could stoke tensions over joint military exercises the United States and South Korea will begin next week.
Yoon, a conservative who took office in May, said denuclearizing North Korea would be key to peace in the region and the world. If North Korea halts its development of nuclear weapons and genuinely embarks on a process of denuclearization, the South will respond with huge economic rewards that will be provided in phases, Yoon said.
Yoon’s proposal was not significantly different from previous South Korean offers that have already been rejected by North Korea, which is accelerating efforts to expand its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program Kim Jong Un considers. as its best guarantee of survival.
“We will implement a large-scale program to provide food, provide assistance for the establishment of infrastructure for the production, transmission and distribution of electric power, and carry out modernization projects for ports and airports to facilitate trade,” Yoon said.
“We will also help improve North Korea’s agricultural production, provide assistance to upgrade its hospitals and medical infrastructure, and lead initiatives to enable international investment and financial support,” he added, insisting. that such programs would “significantly” improve the lives of North Koreans. .
Inter-Korean relations have deteriorated amid a stalemate in broader nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang, which were derailed in early 2019 over disagreements over the exchange of a release from crippling US-led sanctions. United against the North and the disarmament measures of the North.
North Korea has stepped up testing activities in 2022, launching more than 30 ballistic missiles so far, including its first intercontinental ballistic missile demonstrations since 2017. Experts say Kim intends to exploit favorable environment to advance its weapons program, with the UN Security Council divided and effectively paralyzed over Russia’s war on Ukraine.
North Korea’s unusually fast pace of weapons demonstrations also underscores the tightrope strategy aimed at forcing Washington to accept the idea of North Korea as a nuclear power and to negotiate economic advantages and benefits. security concessions in a position of strength, experts say. The US and South Korean governments also said the North was preparing to carry out its first nuclear test since September 2017, when it claimed to have detonated a nuclear warhead designed for its ICBMs.
In the face of growing threats from North Korea, Yoon pledged to strengthen South Korea’s defense in conjunction with its alliance with the United States and to strengthen security ties with Japan, which is also alarmed by the North’s nuclear and ballistic weapons program.
South Korea’s relations with Japan have sunk to post-war lows in recent years as the countries have allowed their grievances throughout history to spill over into other areas, including trade and military cooperation.
While Yoon has called for forward-looking cooperation with Japan, history may continue to pose an obstacle to relations. Countries have struggled to negotiate a solution after Japanese companies overturned South Korean court rulings in recent years to compensate South Koreans subjected to wartime industrial slavery, an issue that could cause a new diplomatic rupture if it led to the forced sale of companies. local assets.
“In the past, we had to free ourselves from the political control of Imperial Japan and defend our freedom. Today, Japan is our partner as we face common threats that challenge the freedom of the world’s citizens,” Yoon said. “As South Korea and Japan move towards a common future and as the mission of our times aligns, based on our shared universal values, it will also help us resolve the historical issues that exist between our two countries. .”
While Washington has said it will push for additional sanctions if North Korea conducts another nuclear test, the prospects for meaningful punitive action are unclear. China and Russia recently vetoed US-sponsored resolutions at the UN Security Council that would have increased sanctions against the North for its ballistic missile tests this year.
North Korean state media said on Monday that Kim exchanged messages with Russian President Vladimir Putin and celebrated the strengthening of their ties.
Kim said relations between the countries were forged by Soviet contributions to Japan’s defeat in World War II and that they were strengthening their “strategic and tactical cooperation, support and solidarity” in the face of military threats from enemies. . Putin said closer ties between the countries would help bring stability to the region, the official North Korean Central News Agency said.
North Korea has repeatedly blamed the United States for the Ukraine crisis, saying the West’s “hegemonic politics” justified Russia’s offensive in Ukraine for self-protection.