|Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha|
The controversy erupted on Tuesday (local time in Sweden) when an official from the South's Ministry of Foreign Affairs made the remark during a global forum discussing denuclearization across the world.
"Nuclear disarmament should be carried out gradually in consideration of the security situation of each country," Kang Jeong-sik, deputy minister for multilateral and global affairs at the South's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said during the Stockholm Ministerial Meeting on the Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
The remarks may be interpreted as "something good" for North Korea as Pyongyang has long sought to pursue its "phased nuclear disarmament" approach in exchange for sanctions relief from the United Nations Security Council. Washington, the strongest ally of the South, has not supported the North's preferred approach.
Even if the South Korean government is playing a mediating role in the denuclearization talks, calls have risen that the remarks from the ministry were "careless enough" to further burden President Moon Jae-in's nuclear diplomacy, as the ministry's announcement may hinder Washington from reaching any future agreement with Pyongyang on nuclear disarmament fully and verifiably.
The foreign ministry announcement is similar to the "gradual steps" for nuclear disarmament.
Amid the spiraling dispute over the remarks, the ministry said North Korea is not recognized as a "nuclear weapons state" under the NPT treaty, so the latest announcement has nothing to do with the ongoing nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
"The NPT treaty recognizes only five countries, the U.S., Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China, as nuclear weapon states," an official from the ministry said.
"According to the NPT treaty, North Korea can never achieve the status. The South Korean government is making all-out diplomatic efforts to bring lasting peace to the peninsula, and on the issue of denuclearization here, Seoul and Washington share the same view."
Moon and Trump plan to hold a summit later this month and discuss measures to resume the now-suspended nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang. The U.S. State Department said recently both leaders will discuss the issue of complete denuclearization and ways to strengthen their security alliance during the upcoming meeting.