South Korea's defense minister has instructed military chiefs to raise their ability to respond to possible provocative acts by North Korea, as critical talks on the North's nuclear weapons get set to resume. South Korea says it is crucial for next week's talks to produce first steps toward eliminating Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
In a letter distributed Friday to top South Korean military officials, recently appointed Defense Minister Kim Jang-soo instructed the country's forces to be "completely ready" for any provocative activity by North Korea.
Kim took office last month, after South Korea's last defense minister resigned in a cabinet shakeup sparked by Pyongyang's test of a nuclear weapon in October.
Kim's letter says, "We have to be completely ready for the possibility of a second and third nuclear test" by the North. The letter comes ahead of Monday's scheduled resumption of six-nation talks in Beijing on Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs.
In their sixth round of formal meetings in three years, China, Russia, the United States, Japan, and South Korea will once again seek to convince the North to give up its nuclear capabilities in exchange for financial support and diplomatic rewards.
Kim Taewoo, a senior analyst at Seoul's Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, says the timing of the defense minister's instructions is clearly deliberate.
He says the North has consistently engaged in provocative behavior in order to gain leverage in nuclear negotiations. Even the nuclear test itself, he says, was a means of raising Pyongyang's political leverage at the nuclear talks.
Yoon Duk-min, a researcher at Seoul's government-funded Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, says Pyongyang has also used its ballistic missile arsenal for negotiating leverage.
He points out Pyongyang conducted missile tests on at least two occasions in the past, just days before talks were scheduled between North Korea and the United States.
This June, sixth months into its latest boycott of nuclear talks, North Korea tested a long-range missile designed to be capable of reaching the United States.
North and South Korea remain technically at war, with three years of fighting in the early 1950s halted only by a temporary armistice. However, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun's North Korea engagement policy has sought to capitalize on warming relations produced by his predecessor's historic North-South summit in 2000.
During his recent visit to New Zealand, Mr. Roh attempted to offer reassurance that the North's nuclear weapons do not fundamentally alter the security balance on the Korean peninsula.
He says South Korea, backed by its alliance with the United States, has superior power even to a nuclear-armed North Korea. He says the North can do "critical harm" to South Korea, but that it can never defeat the South.
Roh administration officials insist next week's talks must produce concrete first steps toward implementing last September's agreement in principle by the North to begin dismantling its weapons.
Progress or no progress, South Korea is beefing up its military investments. Lawmakers announced this week they would boost the country's emergency defense budget by $43 million - earmarked mainly for so-called "bunker buster" bombs designed to destroy underground nuclear facilities.