(ATTN: UPDATES with more remarks on China in paras 9-11)
By Yi Wonju
SEOUL, Oct. 18 (Yonhap) -- The U.S. ambassador to South Korea on Tuesday stressed Washington's "ironclad" commitment to extended deterrence for Seoul, as he denounced North Korea's recent threats of tactical nuclear weapons as "irresponsible and dangerous."
Ambassador Philip Goldberg made the remarks during a forum hosted by the Kwanhun Club, a Seoul-based group of senior journalists, amid mounting calls for the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons here to counter Pyongyang's intensifying nuclear threats and deter its provocations. Some even argue for the need for South Korea to develop its own nuclear arms.
"All this talk about tactical nuclear weapons, whether it comes from Putin or from Kim Jong-un, is irresponsible and dangerous and the escalation of those kinds of threats or speculation I don't think helps the situation," he said.
Goldberg emphasized the need to focus "not on increasing the threat from nuclear weapons, whether they be tactical or otherwise, but to address the need for ridding the world of these weapons." He made clear the Joe Biden administration's commitment to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
"So our work at the moment with our allies here and our allies in Japan is to respond to these provocations and threats by showing resolve, but nobody should doubt our commitment to extended deterrence," he added.
Extended deterrence refers to a commitment to the provision of the full range of military capabilities, including nuclear, conventional, missile defense and other advanced non-nuclear capabilities, to help defend allies and partners.
Goldberg pointed out the U.S. has a "huge commitment" to the defense of South Korea and its people, and will continue to demonstrate it by responding with determination and all available deterrent capabilities to Pyongyang's "illegal" actions.
"Those are all legitimate actions taken by responsible governments in the face of irresponsible actions by a government regime that seeks to destabilize and show its power as opposed to helping its own people," he said.
The envoy also accused China of having "done little" to mitigate the North's threats by "neglecting" its obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions and having failed to counter the North's missile tests and sanctions evasion efforts.
"Unchecked, Kim Jong-un has resorted to increasingly aggressive provocations in response to repeated offers to come to the negotiating table, making it clear that the DPRK has no interest in pursuing peace and particularly not at the cost of denuclearization," he said. "While we will continue to press Beijing to be the responsible actor on the world stage it claims to be, we cannot rely on the PRC to play a supportive role in resolving regional and global challenges if that kind of attitude continues."
The DPRK and the PRC are the acronyms for the official names of North Korea and China -- the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the People's Republic of China.
The North has recently ratcheted up regional tensions with a barrage of provocative missile launches and drills with its tactical nuclear operation units amid growing concerns it may soon conduct a seventh nuclear test.
Asked about the possibility of the North pressing ahead with another nuclear test, the veteran diplomat pointed out that "every indication" shows that it is headed in the direction of doing so in the near future. He would not publicly predict an exact timing.
"I have to say such a step would be further evidence of irresponsibility and of engaging in threats and provocation that only heighten tensions in the region," he said.
Nonetheless, he added, the U.S. has kept making overtures toward the North, while it is sticking to provocative acts.
"We've offered negotiations without preconditions, we've offered COVID assistance, and we've offered humanitarian assistance, but have been met with no response, other than missile tests, nuclear tests, or nuclear preparations, and hostile and aggressive statements from Pyongyang," he said.
Regarding concerns that in case of a China-U.S. conflict over Taiwan, the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) may become involved, the envoy stressed that the focus of the troops and U.S. commitments remain "here on the Korean Peninsula."
"We have troops here in Korea, we have regular exercises, we have regular consultations, and that's the focus of that alliance, and the people of Korea should be reassured that that is an ironclad commitment, regardless of whatever else is happening in the region," he said, two days after President Xi Jinping reaffirmed the goal of the unification of China and Taiwan and stated that Beijing would "never renounce the use of force (to achieve it) and will take all necessary measures to stop all separatist movements."
On the controversy surrounding the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), Goldberg said the IRA's main target is dealing with the issues of climate change and supply chains. The South Korean government and businesses have demanded the U.S. retract the "discriminatory element" of excluding electric vehicles produced in South Korea from tax benefits.
The envoy said Washington takes their related concerns "very seriously" and vowed more consultations to address the matter.
He stressed that bilateral economic relations between the U.S. and South Korea cannot be characterized as a "zero-sum game," saying such a framing neglects the fact that Korean and American businesses are committed to collaborating "in every sector of the economy" and resolving trade disputes.
Signed by President Joe Biden in August, the IRA gives tax credits to buyers of EVs assembled only in North America, sparking concerns that carmakers here will lose ground in the U.S. market, as they make EVs at domestic plants for export. South Korea's leading automaker Hyundai plans to construct EV production facilities in the U.S. state of Georgia, but it won't be up and running before 2025.
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