Photo/Illutration South Korean Unification Minister Kwon Young-se responds in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun in Seoul. (Kiyohide Inada)

SEOUL--North Korea was taking advantage of changes in the international situation to launch an unprecedented number of ballistic missiles that represented an “international threat,” according to South Korea’s unification minister.

Kwon Young-se spoke with The Asahi Shimbun ahead of visiting Japan.

South Korean Unification Ministry officials said Kwon would be visiting Japan from March 22 to 25 for talks with Japanese officials about North Korean policy.

Kwon has served as unification minister since Yoon Suk-yeol became South Korea’s president in May 2022.

The Yoon administration has used pressure to try bringing North Korea to the negotiating table for denuclearization.

But Kwon said North Korea “has not responded at all.”

In 2022, Pyongyang launched a record 70 or so ballistic missiles. It is also moving ahead with deploying tactical nuclear missiles that have a comparatively short range while also developing intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the mainland United States.

“North Korea has been able to deploy, to some extent, short-range missiles, but regarding ICBMs, there are many experts who are raising doubts about whether its missiles can re-enter the atmosphere and carry multiple warheads,” Kwon said.

Even at that level, however, he said North Korea’s military capability represented a “threat not only to Northeast Asia, but to international society.”

He added that while it was difficult to predict when it would happen, he was certain North Korea would conduct a seventh nuclear test in the future.

Kwon gave as Pyongyang’s reasons for its active missile and nuclear weapon development programs the need for “internal solidarity and maintenance of its regime.”

The Yoon administration has taken a much more hard-line stance toward North Korea than the previous Moon Jae-in administration and strengthened ties with the United States while cooperating with Washington and Tokyo to put added pressure on Pyongyang.

“The policy is not just ‘strength versus strength,’ we have also repeatedly made known our readiness to work toward humanitarian cooperation and support,” Kwon said.

But he said that North Korea has not responded and that “all dialogue has been cut off.”

Despite reports of North Korea facing a food shortage, Kwon said, “The situation is not one that represents a threat to the regime.”

But if the food shortage should continue, Kwon said, “There is the possibility of it reaching a critical point.

“If that happens, North Korea may be forced to change course.”

Kwon added that South Korea would cooperate with Japan in trying to resolve the issue of North Korea's abduction of Japanese nationals.

Kwon was also asked about the frequent and recent appearances of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s daughter, whom South Korean intelligence officials have identified as Kim Ju Ae, at military exercises.

Kwon said her appearances were intended to give the impression domestically that North Korea’s nuclear weapons were being developed for future generations, adding it was still too early to say whether she was being groomed to take over from her father in the future.