SEOUL, South Korea — Yoon Suk Yeol, a conservative political neophyte, took office on Tuesday as South Korea’s new president with a vow to pursue a negotiated settlement of North Korea’s threatening nuclear program and an offer of a “bold plan” to improve its economy if it gives up its nuclear weapons.
Yoon begins his unique five-year term during one of the most difficult situations of any recent new president, facing a mix of significant security, economic and social issues besetting the world’s 10th largest economy. There is widespread skepticism that an increasingly belligerent North Korea will pay much attention to its offers, and South Korea’s deep political and social divisions, as well as growing concern over the The state of the pandemic-hit economy is reflected in a recent poll showing that Yoon is facing lower popularity figures than incumbent Liberal President Moon Jae-in.
Yoon had promised a tougher stance on North Korea during his campaign, but he avoided harsh rhetoric during his inaugural speech amid growing concerns that the North is planning its first nuclear bomb test in nearly five years. North Korea rejected similar overtures from some of Yoon’s predecessors that tied 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 the decaying labor market and growing gap between rich and poor are setting the stage for a democratic crisis by stoking “internal strife and discord” and fueling the spread of “anti-intellectualism”.
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. He appears to be trying to shake up Yoon’s government while upgrading its arsenal of weapons and pressuring the Biden administration to ease sanctions. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently warned that his nuclear weapons would not be limited to their primary mission of deterring war if the North’s national interests were threatened.
During a political briefing earlier on Tuesday, South Korean military chief Won In-Choul told Yoon that North Korea could soon 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.”
Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang of the private Sejong Institute said there was little chance North Korea would accept Yoon’s conditional support plan because the North believes South Korea must first. abandon its hostile policy, which means regular military exercises with the United States, before talks can resume.
Yoon also has to deal with a destabilizing rivalry between the United States and China and historic disputes with Japan. South Korea is also preparing for the fallout from Russia’s war on Ukraine on global energy markets.
According to Chung Jin-young, a professor at Kyung Hee University, South Korea must accept that it cannot force North Korea to denuclearize or ease the standoff between the United States and China. He said South Korea should instead focus on strengthening its defense capability and strengthening the US 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.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Tuesday that Beijing stands ready to work with Yoon’s government to strengthen strategic partnership and jointly promote regional peace and stability. China sent Vice President Wang Qishan to Yoon’s inauguration ceremony.
Yoon did not mention Japan during his speech. During his campaign, he accused Moon of exploiting Japan for domestic political reasons and stressed the strategic importance of Tokyo. 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 that 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 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 presidential palace to the Blue House mountainside. 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.