Yoon Suk Yeol, a conservative political neophyte, took office as South Korea’s new president Tuesday with a vow to pursue a negotiated settlement of North Korea’s threatening nuclear program and an offer of “an audacious plan” to improve Pyongyang’s economy if it abandons its nuclear weapons.
Yoon had promised a tougher stance on North Korea during his campaign but avoided tough words during his inaugural speech amid growing worries that the North is preparing for its first nuclear bomb test in nearly five years. North Korea has rejected similar past overtures by some of Yoon’s predecessors that link incentives to progress in its denuclearization.
“While North Korea’s nuclear weapon programs are a threat, not only to our security but also to Northeast Asia, the door to dialogue will remain open so that we can peacefully resolve this threat,” Yoon told a crowd gathered outside parliament in Seoul.
“If North Korea genuinely embarks on a process to complete denuclearization, we are prepared to work with the international community to present an audacious plan that will vastly strengthen North Korea’s economy and improve the quality of life for its people,” he said.
Vexing security challenge
Yoon also addressed South Korea’s growing economic problems, saying decaying job markets and a widening rich-poor gap are brewing a democratic crisis by stoking “internal strife and discord” and fuelling a spread of “anti-intellectualism” as people lose their sense of community and belonging.
He said he would spur economic growth to heal the deep political divide and income equalities.
North Korea’s advancing nuclear program is a vexing security challenge for Yoon, who won the March 9 election on a promise to strengthen South Korea’s 70-year military alliance with the United States and build up its own missile capability to neutralize North Korean threats.
In recent months, North Korea has test-launched a spate of nuclear-capable missiles that could target South Korea, Japan and the mainland United States. Pyongyang appears to be trying to rattle Yoon’s government while modernizing its weapons arsenals and pressuring the Biden administration into relaxing sanctions on it. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently warned that his nuclear weapons won’t be confined to their primary mission of deterring war if his national interests are threatened.
In a policy briefing earlier Tuesday, South Korea’s military chief Won In-Choul told Yoon in a video conference that North Korea is ready to conduct a nuclear test if Kim decides to do so. Yoon then ordered military commanders to maintain firm readiness, saying that “the security situation on the Korean Peninsula is very grave.”
Other issues in the tough mix of foreign policy and domestic challenges facing Yoon are a U.S.-China rivalry and strained ties with Japan over history and trade disputes. South Korea is also bracing for the fallout of Russia’s war on Ukraine in 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 U.S.-China standoff. He said South Korea must instead focus on strengthening its defence capability and the U.S. alliance to “make North Korea never dare to think about a nuclear attack on us.” He said South Korea must also prevent ties with Beijing from worsening.
Yoon didn’t 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 end up in the same policy rut as Moon, considering the countries’ deep disagreements over sensitive history issues such as Tokyo’s wartime mobilization of Korean labourers and sex slaves.