South Korean defense officials say North Korea poses a "serious" threat to the South, following its test of a nuclear weapon in October. In a new report, Seoul's Defense Ministry uses firmer language than in recent years to describe its assessment of the North Korean threat. VOA's Kurt Achin has more from the South Korean capital.
Friday's Defense White Paper repeatedly uses the phrase "grave" or "serious threat" in its description of North Korea. South Korean defense officials say this marks a harsher tone than the report of two years ago, which described the North as a "direct military threat."
The report says Pyongyang's October 9 test explosion of a nuclear device poses a "serious threat" to the security of the South. But it stopped short of calling North Korea a nuclear weapons power.
The paper warns Pyongyang may have produced about 30 kilograms of plutonium in the last three years, which experts say is enough to make about five bombs. It also reiterates previous warnings about the North's massive buildup of artillery, chemical and biological weapons, and standing army of more than a million soldiers.
Nam Sung-wook, a North Korea specialist at Korea University in Seoul, says that despite the more urgent tone of this year's white paper, the South is still divided about how it sees the North.
He says military experts are inherently more likely to describe the North as a threat, while political leaders are more likely to cling to the efforts of recent years to engage the North peacefully.
Public perceptions of North Korea's threat potential have changed dramatically in the past ten years. When hundreds of thousands of North Koreans starved to death in the mid-1990s, many South Koreans' fear of the North evolved into sympathy.
A first and only North-South summit in 2000 generated a euphoric public mood of reconciliation, buttressing support for the South's "sunshine policy" of cooperating with Pyongyang.
However, this year's nuclear and long-range missile tests by North Korea have reignited debate in South Korea about whether Seoul should take a harder line towards Pyongyang.
The biennial Defense White Paper does repeat one precedent set by the 2004 edition, ending a decades-long practice of calling North Korea the South's "main enemy."
North and South Korea remain technically at war, with only a truce declared in their 1950-53 conflict. Under Washington's military alliance with the South, about 28,000 U.S. forces are stationed here to deter Pyongyang from repeating its 1950 invasion.