By Jun Ji-hye
A 12-member delegation led by Vice Defense Minister Hwang In-moo will visit Cambodia and Laos this week to discuss defense cooperation, the Ministry of National Defense said Monday.
The visit is part of the nation's efforts to bolster diplomacy with countries that have been friendly with North Korea to ensure worldwide implementation of the toughest-ever sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on the reclusive state.
The delegation left for Cambodia late Monday for a visit until Wednesday, which will be followed by a trip to Laos from Wednesday to Friday.
The two Southeast Asian nations have traditionally maintained close ties with North Korea.
"Hwang will meet with Cambodia and Laos's senior defense officials and discuss bilateral defense cooperation," the ministry said in a press release.
Hwang is the highest ranking South Korean defense ministry official ever to visit the two countries. The delegation comprises working-level officials from Cheong Wa Dae, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the Ministry of National Defense.
During his visit, Hwang will also make a courtesy call to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
"In the talks with senior officials, Hwang plans to request cooperation in dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue, including efforts to push for the implementation of UNSC resolutions," the ministry said.
Hwang will also meet with senior defense officials in Laos to discuss a wide range of issues, including cooperation in demining, according to the ministry.
The latest visit is in line with the nation's broadening diplomatic foray to win over Pyongyang's allies.
In May, President Park Geun-hye became the first South Korean leader to visit Iran and Uganda, which have maintained close military ties with the North.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani vowed to support the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula during his summit with Park, May 2, while Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni promised to "disengage" from military cooperation with the North, May 29.
In June, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se held the first-ever foreign ministerial talks with his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, in Havana, where Yun expressed Seoul's willingness to establish diplomatic ties with the Caribbean country.
The talks broke a decades-long absence of formal diplomatic exchanges between Seoul and Havana. Ties between the two were severed in 1959 when Communist revolutionary Fidel Castro took power and aligned with North Korea.
The government apparently expects that improving ties with countries that maintain close relations with the North will further pressure the repressive state, as its international isolation has already deepened following the sanctions.
The UNSC imposed the harshest sanctions yet on the Kim Jong-un regime in early March for its fourth nuclear test in January and a long-range rocket launch in February. Sanctions from major countries including the United States also followed.
But the North is showing few sign of giving up its nuclear and ballistic missile program.
The regime launched an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) last week, which was the latest in a series of provocative actions.
"The upcoming visits will add to the efforts made by the government following the North's nuclear test," a defense official said on condition of anonymity.