SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea is no longer South Korea’s “enemy,” though Pyongyang’s nuclear program still poses a security threat, according to Seoul’s biennial defense document published Tuesday.
It’s the first time since 2010, the same year 50 South Koreans were killed in attacks blamed on the North, that the enemy label hasn’t been applied, and a further sign of better ties between the rivals.
The South Korean Defense Ministry white paper doesn’t include past terms that labeled North Korea an “enemy, a “present enemy” or the South’s “main enemy.” It still said the North’s weapons of mass destruction are a “threat to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” a reference to the North’s missile and nuclear program.
The “enemy” terminology has been a long-running source of animosity between the Koreas. North Korea has called the label a provocation that demonstrated Seoul’s hostility.
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Liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in is pursuing deeper engagement with the North after a surprise round of diplomacy last year replaced threats of war and a string of increasingly powerful North Korean weapons tests in 2017.
Moon is not alone in seeking better ties with the North. The paper’s release also comes as U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un look to stage a second summit meant to settle a standoff over the North’s pursuit of a nuclear program that can reliably target anywhere in the continental United States.
South Korea first called North Korea its “main enemy” in 1995, a year after North Korea threatened to turn Seoul into “sea of fire,” a term the North has since repeatedly used when confrontations flared with the South.
During a previous era of detente in the 2000s, South Korea avoided using the reference, but it revived the term in its defense document after the 2010 attacks by the North.
In the latest defense document, South Korea’s military said it considers unspecified “forces which threaten (South Korea)’s sovereignty, territory, citizens and property our enemy.”
The change in terminology is certain to draw strong criticism from conservatives in South Korea who argue that Moon’s push to engage the North has deeply undermined the country’s security posture.
Under tension-easing agreements reached after Moon’s summit with Kim Jong Un in September, the two Koreas demolished some of their front-line guard posts, established buffer zones along their frontier and demilitarized a shared border village.
Many conservatives in South Korea have said that South Korea shouldn’t have agreed on conventional arms-reduction programs because North Korea’s nuclear threat remains unchanged.
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According to the South Korean defense document, North Korea has 1.28 million troops, one of the world’s largest armies, compared with the South’s 599,000. The North also still forward-deploys about 70 percent of its army assets and has newly launched a special operation unit specializing in assassinations, it said.
The document publicized the 14 kinds of ballistic missiles that it said the North possesses or is developing, including ICBMs that the country test-launched last year. The document said the ICBM tests haven’t proved whether North Korea has overcome a major remaining technological barrier and now has the ability to strike the U.S. mainland with missiles.
The document also assessed that the North has a “considerable amount of highly enriched uranium,” an ingredient that gives North Korea a second route to manufacture nuclear weapons along with its stockpile of 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of weaponized plutonium, which civilian experts say is enough for at least eight bombs.
South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told parliament in October that North Korea was estimated to have up to 60 nuclear weapons.
Broader global diplomacy aimed at ridding North Korea of its nuclear weapons hasn’t achieved a breakthrough since Kim’s summit with Trump in Singapore last June.
Prospects for a second U.S.-North Korea summit have been boosted after Kim traveled to China last week in what experts say was a trip aimed at coordinating positions ahead of talks with Trump.