- The Washington Times - Monday, July 4, 2022

North Korea on Sunday blamed the U.S., Japan and South Korea for the “rapid aggravation of the security environment of the Korean peninsula,” and said it will quickly build up its defensive capabilities in response.

The sharp words from the North Korean Foreign Ministry come amid growing fears that Pyongyang is poised to conduct its first nuclear-weapons test since 2017. Such a move would spark a major escalation of tensions on the peninsula and would present the Biden administration with a significant foreign policy crisis at a time when the West is largely focused on the grueling Russia-Ukraine war.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict was at the top of the agenda last week when NATO members met for a high-stakes summit in Madrid. But President Biden also met with the leaders of South Korea and Japan on the sidelines of that summit.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s attendance at the event as an “observer” marked the first time a South Korean leader had attended a NATO summit, along with leaders from Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

The meeting of American, Japanese and South Korean leaders sparked an angry response from both North Korea and China. Beijing accused NATO of seeking to extend its military influence into Asia to contain China’s rise, while Pyongyang alleged that the U.S. and its allies are preparing for war with North Korea.

“The prevailing situation more urgently calls for building up the country’s defense to actively cope with the rapid aggravation of the security environment of the Korean peninsula and the rest of the world,” the North Korean Foreign Ministry said.

“The chief executives of the U.S., Japan and South Korea put their heads together for confrontation with and discussed the dangerous joint military countermeasures against it including the launch of tripartite joint military exercises,” the ministry said in its statement.

Pyongyang often criticizes U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, which are routinely held on the peninsula. U.S. and South Korean officials have repeatedly said the drills are defensive in nature and by no means preparation for an attack on North Korea.

Mr. Yoon, who took office less than two months ago, has spoken of intensifying military ties with Washington in the face of an increasingly hostile North Korea, but has also taken care not to incite China, Seoul’s biggest trading partner.

“Regarding the trilateral meeting or the NATO summit, it is not about excluding a certain country,” Mr. Yoon told reporters aboard his presidential jet returning home to South Korea last week, according to the Korea Times. “Whenever we are dealing with domestic issues or international agendas, we should pursue a common value and protect rules that everyone should follow.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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