Seoul is said to be “dramatically” strengthening its defenses in the face of fears over North Korea’s nuclear plans

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“Our government will strengthen its capabilities to better implement U.S. enhanced deterrence and will dramatically improve the responsiveness of the Republic of Korea’s military to counter North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats,” Defense Minister Lee Jong-Sup said at the Shangri- La Dialogs in Singapore.

Lee also said South Korea would work more closely with the United States and Japan as part of its response – echoing a promise made a day earlier by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

North Korea’s “repeated missile provocations” have advanced in “quality and quantity,” Lee said, adding that this and preparations for a nuclear test are a “serious challenge that threatens peace and stability.”

That threat was a key topic of discussion at the three-day security forum, which draws defense officials from across the region and played out this year in the shadow of the war in Ukraine and heightened concerns about Pyongyang’s weapons program.

North Korea has significantly expanded its ballistic missile testing this year, launching 17 missiles so far, while both the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency have warned of signs the country is preparing for an underground nuclear weapons test that would be the first since 2017.
Lee’s recent comments are another sign that Seoul is taking a harder line on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s regime following North Korea’s spate of missile tests and the election of new South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.

Regional Response

The dialogue was also a forum for countries to strengthen plans to work together to deter the North Korean threat.

Meeting on the sidelines of the forum on Saturday, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi and South Korea’s Lee spoke of “solidarity” as a key element of deterrence against North Korea, according to a senior US defense official.

The three countries plan to engage in ballistic missile data-sharing drills and discuss additional trilateral drills, the official said.

In a speech the same day, Austin pledged to deepen American security cooperation with Japan and South Korea in response to North Korean provocations.

“We remain open to future diplomacy – and fully prepared to deter and defeat future aggression,” he said.

Earlier this month, the US and South Korea jointly responded to a North Korean missile test by launching their own missiles into waters off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula while American and Japanese forces held a joint exercise.

Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe also commented on North Korea’s recent missile launches in response to a question after his own speech at the forum on Sunday.

Wei said China will continue to promote peace on the Korean peninsula, but stressed that security concerns from all parties should be taken into account.

“The DPRK’s Concerns [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] are not addressed by the international community,” he said, adding that international sanctions have affected the quality of life in North Korea.

Late last month, China, along with Russia, blocked a US-led attempt to tighten sanctions on North Korea in response to recent ballistic missile tests in violation of UN resolutions.

In his address, South Korea’s Minister Lee said that if North Korea made significant progress on denuclearization, South Korea would pursue a “bold plan” to help improve the country’s economy and the lives of its citizens, but this plan must “come from a position “come of strength.”

CNN’s Ally Barnard and Teele Rebane contributed to this report.

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