North Korea’s nuclear programme "a clear and present danger", warns NATO Secretary General during visit to East Asia

Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary General "strongly condemned" Pyongyang's nuclear missile test programme during his visit to Seoul on 2 November, but in a speech at the ASAN Institute for Policy Studies in the South Korean capital said that NATO had the "capabilities and resolve to respond to any aggression" from North Korea. “Our position is clear - North Korea must abandon its nuclear programme, once and for all", he added.

The speech came at the close of a five-day visit to East Asia, in which the Secretary General:

  • met with security experts in Tokyo at a roundtable sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation (30 October) and held talks with Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera;
  • met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to discuss the NATO’s cooperation with Japan and common security challenges, and gave a speech at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo (31 October), in which he described how a shift in “the geography of danger” means that nowadays, many of “the challenges we face are global”. Stoltenberg also urged all UN members to fully and transparently implement sanctions against North Korea, which he said has emerged as a global threat able to fire ballistic missiles as far as Europe and North America;
  • met the South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kang Kyung-wha in Seoul, where both signed a new partnership plan between NATO and South Korea (1 November); and
  • visited the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the UN Command in Panmunjom, where he met South Korean, US and UN personnel (2 November) and gave a speech at the ASAN Institute for Policy Studies and a press conference at the same venue. He also held talks with President Moon Jae-in.

In Seoul, Stoltenberg said "North Korea is developing ballistic missiles capable of hitting cities both in North America and in Europe", adding that North Korea’s nuclear programme is also "a clear and present danger" to NATO’s Asian partners, South Korea and Japan.

The Secretary General's comments came after around 200 people were reported to have been killed in North Korea when tunnels collapsed at the Punggye-ri underground nuclear test site in the northeast of the country on 10 October. In September, North Korea exploded a nuclear bomb at the underground site—Pyongyang's sixth nuclear weapons test in 11 years—setting off an earthquake with a magnitude of about 6.3 that was felt as far away as China.

A North Korean spokesman is reported as criticising the Secretary General for “aping” US President Donal Trump: "While it is clear NATO is an agency based on US military power, we cannot understand why the NATO secretary general, who is not even an American, is aping Trump, more so than members of [Trump's] administration," North Korea stated. "Selling our possession of nuclear weapons as a threat to Europe and the world is preaching right and wrong, a form of impure sophistry," North Korea said, adding its nuclear programme is designed to "protect the dignity and sovereignty" of the North Korean people.

The acceleration of North Korea's nuclear and missile programme has destabilised the east Asian region and led to a war of words, that hint at a nuclear exchange, between Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump. With the latter scheduled to arrive in the region this week for his first official visit to the region, tensions are likely to grow.

In addition to addressing security concerns in East Asia, another aim of the Secretary General’s visit was to deepen NATO’s ties with both Japan and South Korea. Regarding the former, the Secretary General and Prime Minister Abe agreed to develop a new programme of cooperation, to advance joint work in the areas of cyber defence, maritime security, nuclear non-proliferation and fighting terrorism, including the appointment of a Japanese Liaison Officer to NATO’s Allied Maritime Command. Japan signed a joint political declaration with NATO in 2013 and an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme in May 2014.

South Korea was one of NATO’s first global partners to sign a tailor-made cooperation plan with the alliance in 2012 and since then cooperation has ranged from Afghanistan to Somalia, and from science to cyberspace. South Korea led a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Parwan, Afghanistan, and has contributed $200 million to support the Afghan National Army. NATO and Korean ships have also worked together to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa.

During the Secretary General’s visit, NATO and South Korea agreed a new partnership plan – not yet publicly available – but which is reported to include joint work on counter-terrorism and cyber defence. South Korea has also joined NATO’s Malware Information Sharing Platform, which shares warnings about cyber threats in real time. Further joint research is also anticipated on sensors, drones and big data processing. Seoul will also send military staff to the NATO Headquarters in Brussels.