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N Korea at crossroads

South Korea no longer calls Pyongyang 'enemy' in defense paper

Japan downgraded to a 'neighbor' as tensions mount

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands at the demilitarized zone separating the two countries in April.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korea ceased referring to North Korea as an "enemy" in its biennial defense white paper for 2018 released Tuesday, reflecting President Moon Jae-in's efforts to prioritize rapprochement with Pyongyang.

At the same time, the document eliminated the phrase "share the basic values of liberal democracy and market economy" in describing its relationship with Japan. The move appears to reflect a souring of bilateral ties over allegations that a South Korean warship locked radar on a Japanese patrol plane.

The previous defense white paper for 2016, compiled during the presidency of Park Geun-hye, designated "the North Korean regime and its military" as an "enemy." But the latest document refrained from singling out North Korea and instead broadened the label to describe any invading force that threatens South Korea's sovereignty, territory, citizens or assets.

"The expression, enemy, is described as a concept that encompasses not only North Korean threats but also transnational and nonmilitary threats, as well as increasing potential threats," the Ministry of National Defense said in a news release.

The administration of Roh Moo-hyun, who served as president from 2003 to 2008, called the North a direct military threat rather than an enemy. But military tensions reignited under successor Lee Myung-bak, leading his conservative government to use the term "enemy" once again.

The neighbors agreed in November to halt all hostile acts near the demilitarized zone. Seoul's updated defense report says the two sides have built a foundation to reduce tensions and develop trust.

Meanwhile, the new paper merely calls Japan a geographically and culturally close neighbor and partner with which cooperation is necessary. 

As for the scope of security cooperation between South Korea and Japan, the defense paper no longer cites the need to counter "nuclear and missile threats from North Korea." The document gives a higher priority to security cooperation with China. 

Japan had dropped a reference to shared basic values with South Korea in its Diplomatic Bluebook for 2015, saying instead that the country was its "most important neighbor."

Seoul's statements covering North Korea's nuclear capabilities remained similar to the 2016 paper. Pyongyang possesses about 50 kg of weapons-grade plutonium and a "considerable" amount of highly enriched uranium, the document said.

North Korea's miniaturization technology for a nuclear warhead has reached a "considerable" level, the paper said, but added that it was necessary to determine whether the country has mastered atmospheric re-entry technology for intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the continental U.S.

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