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N. Korea’s nuclear program ‘biggest threat’ to region: South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff

FILE : General Han Min-koo (R), new chairman of South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, inspects an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony for General Han at a U.S. military base in Seoul July 8, 2010. (Getty / REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak )

SEOUL, Oct. 18 (KATAKAMI / Yonhap) — North Korea’s nuclear weapons program poses the most serious threat to the security of the Asia-Pacific region, South Korea’s top military officer said Monday.

“North Korea’s nuclear program, as well as its weapons of mass destruction, is the biggest threat” to regional stability, Gen. Han Min-koo, chairman of the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), told reporters at an annual conference of military leaders in Seoul.

It was not clear whether Han’s remarks were based on the recent reports of fresh activities close to the North’s main nuclear complex Yongbyon.

Officials at the JCS declined to elaborate on the comments by Han, who also cited territorial disputes and pirates in Southeast Asia as security threats to the region.

Recent satellite images by the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security showed construction activity near a cooling tower at Yongbyon, which the North blew up in 2008 as a show of its commitment to denuclearization.

North Korea has signaled that it was ready to rejoin the long-suspended six-party talks on its denuclearization, but its motive remains unclear with images suggesting it might be preparing to restore the plutonium-producing facility.

During the conference, Han said South Korea’s military would forge closer cooperation with its U.S. and Japanese counterparts to share intelligence on the North’s nuclear program.

North Korea, believed to have enough weaponized plutonium for at least a half dozen bombs, declared it was quitting the six-party talks in April last year and conducted its second nuclear test a month later.

South Korea is hosting the five-day Chiefs of Defense conference this week, with participants including U.S. Pacific Command Commander Robert Willard and Gen. Ryoichi Oriki, Japan’s chief of joint self-defense forces.

The conference drew dozens of senior defense officials from 27 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Coordinating ways to improve civilian-military cooperation at international peacekeeping missions and global collaboration on maritime security are among the topics on the agenda for the meeting that ends Friday, Seoul’s military officials said.

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