South Korea's New President, Who Promised Tough Stand On Nuclear-Armed North, Begins Term With Midnight Briefing At Bunker
South Korea’s new President advocates a hard-line approach in dealing with North Korea's missile provocations.
Yoon Suk-yeol, the new President of South Korea, was sworn into office yesterday (10 May). A conservative from the People Power Party, Yoon is the first president to be born after the Korean War.
Yoon's swearing-in ceremony marks the return of the conservatives back to the centre stage of South Korean politics and diplomacy.
The change of guard in Seoul may also result in a directional shift in South Korea's policy towards Pyongyang. In the past, Yoon has advocated a hard-line approach in dealing with North Korea's missile provocations.
Yoon has emphasised imposing and enforcing sanctions against Pyongyang. His predecessor, President Moon Jae-in, had prioritised improving inter-Korean ties during his five-year term.
He has also voiced his intention to strengthen North Korea's economy if it embarks on a denuclearisation process.
"If North Korea genuinely embarks on a process to complete denuclearisation, 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.
"I solemnly pledge today that I will do my utmost to elevate Korea into a country that truly belongs to the people, a country based on the pillars of freedom, human rights, fairness and solidarity; a country that is respected by others around the world. Let us embark on this journey together," he added.
As a conservative, Yoon has presented a foreign policy agenda which advocates closer ties with the United States. During Moon's tenure, analysts say, Seoul was reticent and didn't want to "take sides" in the great-power competition between the United States and China.
In foreign policy, Yoon's primary challenge will be striking a balance between the United States and China. The United States is Seoul's crucial military ally, and China is Seoul's largest trading partner.
Along with strengthening ties with the US, Yoon will also face the challenge of reviving strained ties with Japan. The problematic shared history of Korea and Japan — the memory of Japan's colonial occupation of Korea — has complicated the relations between the two countries.
Closer to South Korea's border, Pyongyang has been ramping up its missile testing. It has already launched 15 missiles this year, reports say.
Out of the 15 launches this year, at least one is believed to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Analysts have said that Pyongyang's ICBM might be capable of hitting the US mainland. North Korea had last conducted an ICBM test of this kind in 2017. This test ended a four-year-old moratorium on ICBM testing.
Pyongyang has followed a policy of welcoming new leaders of South Korea with major provocations like missile testing. Back in 2013, two weeks before the now disgraced Park Geun-hye was inaugurated as president, Pyongyang had conducted an underground nuclear test. The ICBM tests in 2017 were conducted just two months after former president Moon's tenure began.
During his campaign rallies, Yoon had advocated for "pre-emptive strikes" against North Korea if an attack on South Korea looked imminent.
The conservatives were last in power between 2008 and 2017. During that time, they had offered similar economic incentives to Pyongyang based on the precondition that Pyongyang denuclearises. North Korea had responded with the most provocative military actions since the Korean War. A South Korean naval ship was sunk by North Korean torpedoes, resulting in the death of 46 sailors.
Pyongyang also bombarded South Korean islands with rockets and shells.
Under the previous conservative government, South Korea had sanctioned the deployment of US anti-ballistic missile defence system THAAD despite objections from China. During his campaign, the new South Korean president had promised to deploy more THAAD systems in the country, refusing to be cowered by Beijing's warnings.
In what is being seen as a signal to North Korea and China, the new President began his term at midnight by receiving a report from the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the situation room of the National Crisis Management Center located in the bunker of the presidential office in Yongsan.
Cheong Wa Dae, also known as the Blue House, was the executive office and official residence of the President of South Korea since 1948. It is where Moon, Yoon's predecessor, worked and lived. Breaking with decades of tradition, Yoon has decided to move the presidential office from the Blue House to the Defence Ministry compound.
Domestically, Yoon faces the challenge of bringing together a society which has been divided for a long time. Many in South Korea see the society and laws as misandrist. According to a survey conducted in 2019, more than two-thirds of men said that unfairness towards men, particularly in the application and formulation of laws, was a serious problem.
The roots of this trend go back in time. But the unwillingness to talk about these issues has ensured that the problem keeps festering.
Promising to restore fairness and equality is believed to be one of the primary reasons for Yoon's victory in the elections.
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