By Hyonhee Shin and Jack Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) – The South Korean ruling party’s presidential candidate said he would seek US support to build nuclear-powered submarines to better respond to North Korean threats and proactively seek to reopen stopped nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington.
In an interview with Reuters and two other media outlets, Lee Jae-myung also promised to put “strategic ambiguity” aside in light of the intensified Sino-US rivalry, promising that pragmatic diplomacy would avoid forcing South Korea to choose between the to lande.
The former governor of Gyeonggi province became the presidential candidate of President Moon Jae-in’s ruling Democratic Party in October because of his aggressive COVID-19 reactions and advocate for universal basic income. The election is scheduled for March 9, 2022.
Lee, 57, is in a close race against his challenger from the main conservative opposition party, the Power Power Party, Yoon Suk-yeol, but his viewership has risen in recent weeks and surpassed Yoon in some polls this week.
Lee said he would persuade the United States to win diplomatic and technological assistance to launch nuclear-powered submarines, which could operate more quietly for extended periods, amid renewed calls to build one in the military and parliament after North Korea test-fired a new missile from a submarine in October.
Lee cited the agreement Australia made during a trilateral security partnership with the United States and Britain in September to build its own nuclear-powered submarines.
“It is imperative for us to have these submarines. They are not armed per se and technology transfer is on its way to Australia,” he said. “We can definitely convince the United States, and we have to.”
He rejected the idea of seeking assistance from France or elsewhere, saying “it is a question of whether we will keep the agreement with Washington or not and whether we can persuade them or not.”
South Korea currently has a ban on reprocessing spent fuel under a civilian nuclear energy pact with the United States, and sources said the Moon administration had failed to earn U.S. support for such submarines.
As an outside party who is often critical of Moon, Lee said he would not retain Moon’s policy of strategic ambiguity between the United States, South Korea’s top ally, and China, its largest economic partner.
“We do not have to be forced to make a choice by being ambiguous,” he said, describing the situation as “retrograde, submissive.”
“With our growing economic, military and soft power, our diplomacy should focus on getting them to choose, not that we are asked to take sides. I call it pragmatic diplomacy based on national interests,” Lee added.
With regard to North Korea, Lee supported US President Joe Biden’s “bottom-up” approach of prioritizing working-level negotiations, which he said would be useful in drawing realistic short-term action plans under a comprehensive roadmap.
Moon had offered a bridge between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and former US President Donald Trump, but was accused of raising unrealistic expectations for his own inter-Korean agenda following a failed 2019 summit.
“Trump’s top-down approach looked nice, but was unrealistic … although summits and working-level talks can create a positive interplay,” Lee said.
He promised to be an even more proactive mediator to remove tensions and mistrust and restart negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington, but did not elaborate.
All new negotiations should aim at drawing up a roadmap for the decommissioning of the Nordic nuclear and missile programs in return for the US sanctions, where both sides are obliged to take concrete actions “in a simultaneous, step-by-step manner” with “snap-back” provisions. for cases of non-compliance, Lee said.
“There’s a river of mistrust between them,” he said. “Our role should be to open a dialogue channel, devise feasible plans and convince both sides so they can cross that river.”
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Jack Kim; Editing by Michael Perry)