South Korea's Yoon will call for strong response to North's nuclear weapons at ASEAN and G20 summits

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Yoon Suk Yeol (File Photo)

Seoul: South Korea's president says he'll tell world leaders about the need to faithfully enforce UN sanctions on North Korea and block the country's illicit activities to fund its weapons programs when they converge in Indonesia and India for annual summits this week.

President Yoon Suk Yeol is to visit Jakarta for four days starting Tuesday to attend a series of summits scheduled on the margins of a meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders. On Friday, he'll travel on to New Delhi for a summit of the leading rich and developing nations.

"At the upcoming ASEAN-related Summits and the G20 Summit, I intend to urge the international community to resolutely respond to North Korea's ever-escalating missile provocations and nuclear threats and to work closely together on its denuclearization," Yoon said in written responses to questions from The Associated Press.

"As long as the UN Security Council sanctions currently in place are faithfully implemented, North Korea's financial means for developing (weapons of mass destruction) can be blocked to a significant extent," Yoon said.

Despite the economic troubles deepened mainly by its draconian pandemic curbs, North Korea has been performing a record number of missile tests since last year. South Korean officials believe the North's weapons programs are increasingly financed by illicit activities like cyber hacking and the export of banned items.

A large number of North Korean workers has also reportedly remained in China and Russia despite a U.N. order for member states to repatriate all North Korean guest workers a key source of foreign currency for the North by December 2019.

Yoon said he will particularly use the Group of 20 summit to underscore "the need to actively deter North Korea from stealing cryptocurrency, dispatching workers overseas, facilitating maritime transshipments and other illegal activities the main funding sources for its nuclear and missile development."

North Korea's advancing nuclear arsenal is the most vexing security concern for South Korea, but it also poses serious threats to the United States and Japan. North Korea's long-range missiles target the mainland U.S., while its shorter-range missiles are capable of reaching South Korea and Japan, both key U.S. allies.

In a trilateral summit at Camp David in August, Yoon, President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida agreed to hold annual trilateral exercises and put into operation by year's end the sharing of real-time missile warning data on North Korea. The three also decided to establish a trilateral working group to boost cooperation to combat North Korean cyber threats and block its cyber-enabled evasion of sanctions.

North Korea reacted angrily, accusing the three leaders of plotting nuclear war provocations on the Korean Peninsula. Leader Kim Jong Un called Yoon, Biden and Kishida "the gang bosses" of the three countries.

Yoon, citing unspecified recent assessments, said North Korea is in its worst economic condition since Kim took power in late 2011.

"North Korean authorities are wasting scarce financial resources on the development of nuclear and missile capabilities. Consequently, the hardships faced by North Koreans in their everyday lives are worsening, and its economy continues to register negative growth," Yoon said.

"Amid such circumstances, unless North Korea stops its nuclear development, the regime's instability will continue to increase."

North Korea has been trying to deepen cooperation with China and Russia, both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council who have repeatedly blocked the U.S. and others' attempts to toughen U.N. sanctions on the North despite its run of prohibited missile tests. Foreign experts also believe China and Russia have not fully implemented U.N. sanctions on North Korea.

US officials suspect North Korea has shipped artillery shells and other ammunition to Russia for use in its war against Ukraine. Last week, the White House said Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin exchanged letters as Moscow looks to Pyongyang for more munitions.

Yoon said China "seems to have considerable leverage" over North Korea, adding that about 97% of North Korea's total external trade volume last year was with China.

"What really matters is whether Beijing will use its leverage, and if so, how much and in what way," Yoon said.

Yoon said China must put forth "constructive efforts to denuclearize North Korea" if the North continues its banned missile tests. He said China must realize that North Korea's nuclear program has "a negative effect on China's national interests by further disrupting regional order among other things."

The exact status of North Korea's nuclear capability is unclear, with experts divided over whether the country possesses functioning nuclear-tipped missiles.

But most agree that Kim won't likely voluntarily abandon his nuclear program, the backbone of his authoritarian rule. They believe North Korea would eventually aim to use its enlarged nuclear arsenal to win sanctions relief from the U.S.

Last week, North Korea said it conducted missile tests to simulate nuclear attacks on South Korea and rehearsed an occupation of the South's territory in response to the summer South Korea-U.S. military drills.

"The international community must clearly demonstrate that its determination to stop North Korea's nuclear program is much stronger than North Korea's will to continue developing it," Yoon said.

In Jakarta, Yoon is to attend the South Korea-ASEAN summit, the ASEAN Plus Three (South Korea-Japan-China) summit, and the East Asia Summit, a gathering of Indo-Pacific nations including the U.S., China and Russia.

Yoon said the joint South Korea-U.S.-Japan statement issued after the Camp David summit clearly emphasizes the importance the three countries place on ASEAN and Pacific Island countries by prioritizing cooperation with them over any other regional issues.

Yoon said he sees the G20 summit as an opportunity for South Korea to lead G20 cooperation to resolve the challenges humanity is facing. He said South Korea will expand its contributions to help climate-vulnerable countries and strengthen cooperation with the international community for the transition to clean energy.

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