SEOUL, South Korea — Yoon Suk Yeol, a conservative political neophyte, took office 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 “an audacious plan” to improve its economy if it abandons its nuclear weapons.
Yoon is starting his single five-year term during one of the most challenging situations of any recent new president, facing a mix of significant security, economic and social problems that are besetting the world’s 10th largest economy. There’s widespread skepticism that an increasingly belligerent North Korea will give his offers much consideration, and South Korea’s deep political and social divides, as well as growing worry about the state of the pandemic-hit economy, are reflected in a recent poll showing that Yoon faces lower popularity numbers than the departing 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 worries that the North is preparing its first nuclear bomb test in nearly five years. North Korea has rejected similar overtures by some of Yoon’s predecessors that linked incentives to progress in its denuclearization.
“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 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.
Yoon also addressed South Korea’s growing economic problems, saying the decaying job market and a widening rich-poor gap are brewing a democratic crisis by stoking “internal strife and discord” and fueling a spread of “anti-intellectualism.”
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. It appears to be trying to rattle Yoon’s government while modernizing its weapons arsenal and pressuring the Biden administration into relaxing sanctions. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently warned that his nuclear weapons won’t be confined to their primary mission of deterring war if the North’s national interests are threatened.
In a policy briefing earlier Tuesday, South Korean military chief Won In-Choul told Yoon that North Korea can conduct a nuclear test soon 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.”
Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at the private Sejong Institute said there’s little chance North Korea will accept Yoon’s conditional support plan because the North believes South Korea must first abandon its hostile policies, by which it means regular military drills with the United States, before talks can resume.
Yoon must also deal with a destabilizing U.S.-China rivalry and disputes over history with Japan. South Korea is also bracing for the fallout of Russia’s war on Ukraine in global energy markets.
South Korea must accept that it cannot force North Korea to denuclearize or ease the U.S.-China standoff, according to Chung Jin-young, a professor at Kyung Hee University. He said South Korea must instead focus on strengthening its defense capability and boosting the U.S. alliance to “make North Korea never dare think about a nuclear attack on us.” He said South Korea must also prevent ties with Beijing from worsening.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Tuesday that Beijing is ready to work with Yoon’s government to boost strategic partnership and jointly promote regional peace and stability. China sent Vice President Wang Qishan to Yoon’s inauguration ceremony.
Yoon didn’t mention Japan during his speech. During his campaign, he accused Moon of exploiting Japan for domestic political reasons 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 laborers and sex slaves.
Some of Yoon’s major domestic policies may face an impasse in parliament, which will remain controlled by liberal lawmakers ahead of general elections in 2024. Yoon must also rebuild South Korea’s pandemic response, shaken by a massive omicron surge in recent months.
He has also been denied a honeymoon period. Surveys show less than 60% of respondents expect he will do well in his presidency, an unusually low figure compared to his predecessors, who mostly received about 80%-90% before they entered office. His approval rating as a president-elect was 41%, according to a survey by Gallup Korea released last week that put then President Moon’s rating at 45%.
Yoon’s low popularity is blamed in part on an acute divide between conservatives and liberals and on contentious policies and Cabinet picks. Some experts say Yoon also hasn’t shown a clear vision for how to navigate South Korea past the foreign policy and domestic challenges.
Yoon won the election by a historically narrow margin after catering to public frustration over Moon’s setbacks in economic policies, which were criticized for letting house prices and personal debt soar out of control and failing to create enough jobs. Yoon focused much of his message on young males who resented the loss of traditional privileges in a hyper-competitive job market and their dimmed prospects for marriage and parenthood, although his campaign was criticized for ignoring the plight of women.
“The challenges that Yoon has at the start of his presidency are the toughest and the most unfavorable ones” among South Korean presidents elected since the late 1980s, a period viewed as the start of the country’s genuine democracy after decades of dictatorship, said Choi Jin, director of the Seoul-based Institute of Presidential Leadership.
In recent weeks, Yoon has invited criticism — even from some of his conservative supporters — by moving his offices from the mountainside Blue House presidential palace. Yoon said moving to the capital’s center is meant to better communicate with the public, but critics question why he has made it a priority when he has so many other urgent issues to tackle.
Yoon, 61, was prosecutor-general for Moon before he resigned and joined the main conservative opposition party last year following internal feuding with Moon’s political allies.