Seoul — Conservative Yoon Suk Yeol took the oath on Tuesday to be sworn in as the new President of South Korea. The 20th president of the country delivered an inauguration speech vowing to build a nation that “truly belongs to the people.”
Much of the South Korean public’s interest has been trained firmly on getting the nation’s economy, and its society, back up and running after the devastating shock of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Yoon knew that he couldn’t wait to address the nuclear-armed elephant in the room: South Korea’s.
Afterduring his election campaign, President Yoon made it clear that while he understood the threat, he wasn’t closing the door on diplomacy — and he hinted at a looming bid to draw the North’s dictator back to the negotiating table.
“While North Korea’s nuclear weapons 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 South Korea’s parliament on Tuesday.
“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 teased.
The new president is a political newcomer. He’s a former national prosecutor general, and his support came largely from South Koreans who disagree with the outgoing government’s moderate stance, particularly on national security matters.
His more hawkish, conservative background and rhetoric has left many to wonder whether the already-sky-high tension between South and North Korea could escalate even further.
Yoon got to work quickly after Tuesday’s inauguration ceremony, and after repeatedly emphasizing the importance of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, the first foreign delegation he sat down with on Tuesday was led by Douglas Emhoff, husband of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris.
Later this month, President Joe Biden will visit South Korea himself, with a presidential summit set for May 21.
Yoon has taken over the running of South Korea at an incredibly tense time on the peninsula. Kim Jong Un carried out his— his 14th of the year — not long after promising to bolster “at the fastest possible pace,” and against foes.
President Biden has put little focus on North Korea, given the urgent distraction of the war in Ukraine and the other international disasters he’s trying to manage.
U.S.-North Korean negotiations, facilitated and pushed hard by Yoon’s predecessor, have languished without progress for years, since Kim’s landmark meetings with former President Donald Trump.
Analysts expect Kim to keep testing intercontinental ballistic missiles, and possibly return to tests of nuclear devices, unless there’s a change in the diplomatic picture.
Many in Washington, as well as Beijing, Tokyo and a host of other capitals, will be watching keenly to see what the new man in Seoul will do to change the trajectory of a standoff that appears to be heading inexorably in the wrong direction.