A North Korean submarine launched missile on Saturday in breach of UN bans, and anticipation is building that the North is also preparing to conduct a nuclear explosion.
The North’s foreign minister, Ri Su Yong, asserted his country had a right to a nuclear deterrent in remarks to the Associated Press at the United Nations.
“Stop the nuclear war exercises in the Korean Peninsula, then we should also cease our nuclear tests,” said Ri in comments directed at Washington.
Ri held firm to Pyongyang’s longstanding position that the US drove his country to develop nuclear weapons as an act of self-defence. He suggested that suspending the military exercises with Seoul could open the door to talks and reduced tensions.
“If we continue on this path of confrontation, this will lead to very catastrophic results, not only for the two countries but for the whole entire world as well,” he said, speaking in Korean through an interpreter.
“It is really crucial for the United States government to withdraw its hostile policy against the DPRK and, as an expression of this, stop the military exercises, war exercises, in the Korean Peninsula. Then we will respond likewise.”
Responding to the remarks, a US state department official defended the military exercises as demonstrating Washington’s commitment to its alliance with the South and maintaining their joint capabilities.
“We call again on North Korea to refrain from actions and rhetoric that further raise tensions in the region and focus instead on taking concrete steps toward fulfilling its international commitments and obligations,” said Katina Adams, a spokeswoman for the state department’s east Asia and Pacific bureau.
The announcement came as concerns grow that the isolated state might conduct a nuclear test or a missile launch ahead of a ruling party meeting in May.
North Korea will hold a congress of its ruling Workers’ party in early May for the first time in 36 years, at which its leader, Kim Jong-un, is expected to say the country is a strong military power and a nuclear state.
The missile flew for about 30km (18 miles), a South Korean defence ministry official said by telephone, adding its military was trying to determine whether the launch may have been a failure for unspecified reasons.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said the missile flew “for a few minutes”, citing a government source.
The US Strategic Command said it had detected and tracked a North Korean submarine missile launch but it did not pose a threat to North America.
State department spokesman John Kirby said launches using ballistic missile technology were “a clear violation of multiple UN security council resolutions”.
France on Saturday called on the European Union to unilaterally adopt additional sanctions against North Korea if the missile launch was confirmed.
The EU in March expanded trade and financial sanctions against North Korea, following up on harsh new measures imposed by the UN security council.
The North first attempted a launch of the submarine-based missile in 2015 and was seen to be in the early stages of developing such a weapons system, which could pose a new threat to its neighbours and the US if it is perfected.
South Korea’s military has said it is on high alert over the possibility that the isolated North could conduct its fifth nuclear test “at any time” in defiance of UN sanctions after setting off what it said was a hydrogen device in January.
Satellite images show North Korea may have resumed tunnel excavation at its main nuclear test site, similar to activity seen before the January test, a US North Korea monitoring website reported on Wednesday.
South Korea and the US, as well as experts, believe the North is working to develop a submarine-launched ballistic missile system and an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), putting the mainland United States within range.
North Korea is banned from nuclear tests and activities that use ballistic missile technology under UN sanctions dating to 2006 and most recently adopted in March but it has pushed ahead with work to miniaturise a nuclear warhead and develop an ICBM.