Yoon Suk Yeol, a conservative political neophyte, took office as South Korea’s new president on Tuesday with a vow to pursue a negotiated settlement of North Korea’s threatening nuclear program and an offer of a “bold plan” to improve Pyongyang’s economy if it gives up its nuclear weapons.
Yoon had promised a tougher stance on North Korea during his campaign but avoided harsh words during his inaugural speech amid growing concerns the North is preparing for its first nuclear bomb test in near of five years. North Korea has rejected similar earlier overtures from some of Yoon’s predecessors that link the incentives to progress on its denuclearization.
“While North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs are a threat, not only to our security but also to Northeast Asia, the door of dialogue will remain open so that we can peacefully resolve this threat,” Yoon told a crowd gathered outside parliament in Seoul.
“If North Korea truly embarks on a process of complete denuclearization, we stand ready to work with the international community to present a bold plan that will significantly strengthen North Korea’s economy and improve the quality of life of its people.” , did he declare.
Vexing Security Challenge
Yoon also addressed South Korea’s growing economic problems, saying that decaying labor markets and a growing gap between rich and poor are fueling a democratic crisis by stoking “internal strife and discord” and fueling the spread of “anti-intellectualism” as people lose their sense of community. and belonging.
He said he would spur economic growth to address the deep political divide and income equality.
The advance of North Korea’s nuclear program is a thorny security challenge for Yoon, who won the March 9 election on a promise to strengthen the 70-year-old military alliance between South Korea and the United States. and to develop its own missile capability to neutralize North Korean threats.
In recent months, North Korea has tested a series of nuclear-capable missiles that could target South Korea, Japan and the mainland United States. Pyongyang appears to be trying to shake up Yoon’s government while upgrading its weapons arsenals and pressuring the Biden administration to ease sanctions against it. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently warned that his nuclear weapons would not be limited to their primary mission of war deterrence if his national interests were threatened.
At a political briefing earlier on Tuesday, South Korean military chief Won In-Choul told Yoon on a video conference call that North Korea was ready to conduct a nuclear test if Kim decided to do so. Yoon then ordered military commanders to stand firmly in readiness, saying “the security situation on the Korean Peninsula is very serious.”
Other issues in the difficult mix of foreign policy and domestic challenges Yoon faces are a US-China rivalry and strained ties with Japan over history and trade disputes. South Korea is also preparing for the fallout from Russia’s war on Ukraine on global energy markets.
Chung Jin-young, a professor at Kyung Hee University, said South Korea must accept that it cannot force North Korea to denuclearize or ease the US-China standoff. He said South Korea should instead focus on strengthening its defense capability and the U.S. alliance to “ensure that North Korea never dares to think of a nuclear attack on us.” He said South Korea must also prevent relations with Beijing from deteriorating.
Yoon did not mention Japan during his speech. During his campaign, Yoon repeatedly accused his liberal predecessor Moon Jae-in of exploiting Japan for domestic politics and stressed Tokyo’s strategic importance. But some experts say Yoon could find himself in the same political rut as Moon, given the countries’ deep disagreements over sensitive historical issues such as Tokyo’s wartime mobilization of Korean workers and sex slaves.