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SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) --
SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) --
South Korea does not need nuclear weapons to deter the threat from North Korea, South Korea's Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said in an exclusive interview with CNN, even as opinion Public sector swings the other way amid Asia's accelerating arms race.
Several recent public polls “definitely showed that we need to rearm.
In terms of nuclear capability, (polls say) we should go further," Han told CNN anchor and business editor-at-large Richard Quest during a meeting in Seoul.
One such poll, released in February this year, found that 71% of more than 1,300 respondents in the country favored South Korea developing its own nuclear weapons, a once unthinkable idea that has been become increasingly common in the past decade, with rising tensions on the Korean peninsula and diminishing confidence in South Korea toward US protection.
However, Han insisted that the country has enough in its arsenal to avoid North Korea's "absurd ambitions" and that developing nuclear capabilities was not "the right way."
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“We have developed a fairly adequate level of our deterrence capabilities in close cooperation with the United States,” he said, adding that the government had “placed a lot of emphasis” on strengthening its deterrence since President Yoon Suk Yeol took office last year. .
"We should work together with the international community...to put a lot of continued pressure on North Korea to denuclearize," he said.
"We would like North Korea to know that the development and advancement of nuclear capabilities will not guarantee peace and prosperity in their country."
Relations between North and South Korea have worsened in recent years as Pyongyang stepped up its weapons program, firing a record number of missiles last year, including one that flew over Japan, the first time North Korea he did it in five years, which caused international alarm.
And for months, the United States and international observers have warned that North Korea appears to be preparing for its first underground nuclear test since 2017. The country's dictator, Kim Jong Un, also stepped up his rhetoric last year;
he declared his intention to build the "world's most powerful" nuclear force, warned adversaries that North Korea was fully prepared for "real war," vowed to "never give up" nuclear weapons and ruled out the possibility of negotiations denuclearization.
In response, the United States and its allies South Korea and Japan have stepped up their own military exercises and cooperation.
Yoon, who has publicly taken a tough stance against North Korea, even raised the possibility of South Korea building its own nuclear arsenal, saying in January that it could "deploy tactical nuclear weapons or possess its own nuclear weapons."
And while Han expressed his opposition to such a plan, he also stressed South Korea's readiness to confront its nuclear-armed neighbor, as well as its openness to new talks, under certain conditions.
“We are not disarming against North Korea,” he said.
"But we are not closing the dialogue channel with North Korea... as long as North Korea refrains from its very strong nuclear ambitions."
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China's role in the region's crisis
Han also touched on China's role in the region, saying the superpower was "not the country it used to be" in past decades that ushered in economic reforms and liberalization.
“China is a huge and important global player,” he said.
"Including Korea, I think many countries would like to see (China) comply more with global rules."
He added that while China will “contribute a lot to solving global problems,” the country often falls short of “expectations that many countries would like to have;
for example, we expected China to be more aggressive and more active in de-escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula."
For years, China has been North Korea's biggest trading partner and an economic lifeline, as Pyongyang is cut off from much of the world.
But Beijing is also a major player in the Asian arms race.
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In January, the US and Japanese ministers warned of the "continued and accelerated expansion of (China's) nuclear arsenal."
Just a few days later, Japan's prime minister raised concerns about China's military activities in the East China Sea and the launch of ballistic missiles over Taiwan that landed in waters near Japan in August.
China's military buildup, aggressive foreign policy and multiple disputed territorial claims have not gone unnoticed in Seoul, where attitudes toward Beijing are rapidly deteriorating.
In the 2022 survey on South Korea's nuclear weapons, more than half of respondents said China would be the biggest threat to the country in 10 years, with many citing "threats other than North Korea" behind their support for a national nuclear arsenal.
Han acknowledged that Seoul was closely watching these territorial disputes.
"Peace in the Taiwan Strait is also very important for the security and peace of the Korean Peninsula," he said.
And while South Korea is "committed" to the one-China policy, he said, "at the same time, (we hope) China will be more rule-based, not behave like a country... be condemned for the international community".
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