South Korea’s new leader offers support if North denuclearizes

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — 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 a offer of a “bold plan” to improve Pyongyang’s economy if it gives up its nuclear weapons.

Yoon promised a tougher stance on North Korea during his campaign, but avoided harsh words during his inaugural address amid growing concerns that the North is preparing for its first nuclear bomb test in nearly 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.

Yoon also addressed South Korea’s growing economic problems, saying that the breakdown of labor markets and the widening 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 the promise to bolster South Korea’s 70-year-old military alliance with the United States and develop its own missile capability to neutralize North Korean threats.

In recent months, North Korea has tested a series of nuclear-capable missiles which 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 also braces for fallout from 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 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.

Some of Yoon’s key domestic policies could face a stalemate in parliament, which will remain controlled by liberal lawmakers ahead of the 2024 general election. Yoon must also rebuild South Korea’s pandemic response, rocked by a massive increase omicron in recent months.

He was also denied a honeymoon period. Polls show less than 60% of those polled expect him to succeed in his presidency, an unusually low figure compared to his predecessors, who mostly received around 80% to 90% before they took office. function. His approval rating as president-elect was 41%, according to a Gallup Korea survey released last week that put President Moon’s rating at 45%.

Yoon’s low popularity is partly blamed on a sharp divide between conservatives and liberals, as well as controversial policies and Cabinet choices. Some experts say Yoon also failed to show a clear vision of how to navigate South Korea beyond foreign policy and domestic challenges.

Yoon won the election by a historically narrow margin after largely responding to public frustration over Moon’s setbacks in economic policies, which have been criticized for allowing house prices and personal debt to soar. and not having created enough jobs. Yoon focused much of his message on young men who resented the loss of traditional privileges in a hyper-competitive job market and their bleak prospects for marriage and parenthood, although his campaign was criticized for having ignored the plight of women.

“The challenges Yoon faces at the start of his presidency are the most difficult and adverse” among South Korean presidents elected since the late 1980s, a period seen as the start of true democracy in the country after decades of dictatorship, Choi Jin said. , director of the Seoul-based Presidential Leadership Institute.

In recent weeks, Yoon has drawn criticism – even from some of his conservative supporters – by moving his offices from the Blue House to the mountainside. Presidential palace. Yoon said moving to the center of the capital was aimed at better connecting with the public, but critics wonder why he made it a priority when he has so many other pressing issues to deal with.

Yoon, 61, was Moon’s attorney general before resigning and joining the main conservative opposition party last year following infighting with Moon’s political allies.

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