(Bloomberg) -- One of the top-ranked conservatives seeking to be South Korea’s next president said the U.S. was “reckless” in its diplomacy with North Korea and questioned if the American ally’s nuclear shield offered real protection.

“America is approaching North Korea in a naive way,” Hong Jun-pyo, a leading candidate from the People Power Party said in an interview with Bloomberg on Wednesday, where he criticized the Biden administration for trying to prod Pyongyang back to stalled nuclear talks.

“If you look at the way the U.S. approaches North Korea with diplomacy, they’ve gotten dragged into their ways,” he said, adding that Pyongyang “will never back down, they’ll just pretend to back down.”

Hong, who launched a failed campaign for presidency in the last election in 2017, is offering a sharp-right turn in foreign policy that includes his long-sought goal of returning nuclear weapons to South Korea, and for Seoul to look into building its own nuclear program.

He wants a clean break from the current progressive government of President Moon Jae-in, who has sought reconciliation with Pyongyang and advocated peaceful relations. While Moon has sought talks, leader Kim Jong Un has been firing off new types of missiles designed to strike all of South Korea, which included a test Wednesday of what appeared to be short-range ballistic missiles. 

Hong said the test was not surprising and underscored the threat South Korea faced from North Korea’s arsenal of missiles that can strike the country and neutralize the U.S.’s nuclear defense network.

North Korea Conducts First Ballistic Missile Test Since March

Biden’s envoy, Sung Kim, was in Tokyo this week for discussions and told Pyongyang the door was open for it to return to nuclear disarmament talks that have been stalled for more than two years.

Biden’s Nuclear Envoy Tells North Korea Door Is Open for Talks

Hong said Biden should open the door instead to bringing back nuclear weapons to South Korea, giving Seoul a say in ordering nuclear strikes and suggesting, if elected, his government would consider developing its own nuclear weapons program if Washington doesn’t bend.

“Nukes can only be countered with nukes,” he said, adding “the balance of terror via nuclear weapons was achieved in Europe. The inter-Korean front is more dangerous place than Europe.”

Polls have shown support for Hong and his position on nuclear weapons. An Opinion Research Justice survey Tuesday showed 31.4% of respondents preferred Hong as presidential candidate for the conservative party, about 3 percentage points higher than the No.2 conservative contender -- former prosecutor chief Yoon Seok-youl. 

When it comes to acquiring nuclear weapons, a survey by the Seoul-based think tank, Asan Institute for Policy Studies, showed that 69.3% supports the move -- an increase from 2010 when it was 55.6%. 

The U.S. deployed nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula between 1958 and 1991, the Congressional Research Service said. The U.S. now covers South Korea in its so-called nuclear umbrella, where it can protect allies with strikes by land, air or sea from America’s atomic arsenal. North Korea has bristled for decades about any nuclear assets that could be used to attack it.

China, South Korea’s biggest trading partner, has let its neighbors know to tread carefully about deploying U.S. systems that could alter the region’s strategic balance. Beijing has warned any country accepting the deployment of intermediate-range American missiles it would face retaliation. Seoul felt China’s wrath about five years ago when Beijing hit parts of its economy for agreeing to accept Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, anti-missile system for defense against North Korea.

Here are some highlights from the interview:

  • Wants South Korea to join the Quad grouping that brings together the U.S., Japan, India and Australia, but would call for changing it into a NATO-model nuclear alliance
  • Can’t just blindly trust the nuclear umbrella or the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, Hong says
  • Will only meet Kim Jong Un if practical negotiations are feasible
  • Hong says his North Korea policy principle is non-intervention, saying South Korea wouldn’t intervene in Pyongyang’s affairs, and it shouldn’t intervene in Seoul’s
  • Wants to have summit with U.S. on American aircraft carrier off the coast of Korean Peninsula, which would send a clear warning to North Korea

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