"The current security situation we are facing is very serious," South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup said Wednesday. "If North Korea conducts a tactical provocation, we will respond sternly in terms of our right to self-defense." Photo by Yonhap
SEOUL, May 11 (UPI) -- New South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup took office on Wednesday, saying that he hopes to strengthen ties with the United States and promised to respond "sternly" to any provocations from North Korea.
Lee, a retired three-star Army general, said that Seoul plans to "establish a strong national defense posture" and vowed to "dramatically" strengthen the country's 3-axis system to counter threats from the North.
South Korea's three-axis system consists of missile defense, a preemptive strike platform if nuclear preparations are detected and an operational plan to incapacitate North Korean leadership in the case of major conflict.
"The current security situation we are facing is very serious," Lee said in his inaugural speech at Defense Ministry headquarters in Seoul. "As the strategic competition between the United States and China continues, North Korea is seriously threatening the security order on the Korean Peninsula as well as the region by upgrading its nuclear and missile capabilities.
"If North Korea conducts a tactical provocation, we will respond sternly in terms of our right to self-defense."
Pyongyang has conducted 15 weapons tests since the beginning of 2022. Its most recent launch last weekend was believed to involve a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
Satellite imagery has shown ongoing construction activity and repairs at North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site, and South Korean and U.S. officials have warned that a nuclear detonation appears imminent. Last week, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter said that the North could be ready to conduct a test at Punggye-ri as early as this month.
Lee's tone on Wednesday echoed that of new President Yoon Suk-yeol, who campaigned on taking a stronger stance against North Korea than outgoing President Moon Jae-in.
In his inaugural address on Tuesday, Yoon held out the offer of dialogue and dangled an "audacious plan that will vastly strengthen North Korea's economy," but said that the secretive regime must embark on a process of full denuclearization.
Wednesday, Lee said that Seoul also plans to "enhance the solidarity" of the U.S.-South Korean military alliance and "promote mutually beneficial defense cooperation with allies."
Later this month, U.S. President Joe Biden is planning to visit South Korea and Japan and is scheduled to participate in a summit with Yoon. Biden is making his first trip to Asia as president on May 20 as he looks to shore up alliances to counter China's growing assertiveness and address threats from North Korea.