By HYUNG-JIN KIM and KIM TONG-HYUNG – Associated Press
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, who previously pledged a tougher stance on North Korea, avoided harsh words during his inaugural speech amid growing fears the North is preparing for its first nuclear bomb test in nearly five years. North Korea has rejected similar earlier overtures from South Korean leaders that link 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.
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“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. “The denuclearization of North Korea will go a long way to bringing lasting peace and prosperity to the Korean Peninsula and beyond.”
Yoon also addressed the country’s growing economic problems, saying that the breakdown of labor markets and the growing 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 lives. sense of community and belonging.
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. Pyongyang appears to be trying to shake up Yoon’s new government while modernizing its weapons arsenals and pressuring the Biden administration to ease sanctions on the North. 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.
Yoon, 61, began his five-year term at midnight Monday by taking command of South Korea’s 555,000 military and receiving a briefing on North Korea from his military chief at the new presidential office in central Seoul, formerly the Ministry of Defense building.
Won In-Choul, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told him in a videoconference that North Korea was ready to conduct a nuclear test if Kim decided to do so. Yoon then ordered military commanders to maintain firm military readiness, saying “the security situation on the Korean Peninsula is very serious.”
Yoon faces a tougher mix of foreign policy and domestic challenges than other recent South Korean leaders facing for the first time.
The US-China confrontation poses a distinct security dilemma for South Korea, while relations with Japan remain strained due to history and trade disputes. South Korea is also preparing for the fallout from Russia’s war on Ukraine on global energy markets.
Domestically, some of Yoon’s key policies could face a stalemate in parliament, which will remain controlled by liberal lawmakers ahead of the 2024 general election. Yoon must also rebuild the pandemic response from shaken South Korea. by a massive increase in omicron in recent months. The COVID-19 crisis has hit an economy already battered by a sluggish job market, rising personal debt and runaway house prices and widening rich-poor gaps.
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 incumbent liberal President Moon Jae-in’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, a foreign policy novice, also failed to show a clear vision of how to navigate the world’s 10th largest economy amid challenges such as North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, a rivalry escalating Chinese-American and pandemic-affected livelihoods.
During his inaugural address, Yoon referred to the country’s deep political divide along ideological and generational lines and called for unity. He pledged to spur economic growth, which he said would solve many of the country’s social problems.
“Rapid growth will open up new opportunities. This will improve social mobility, thus helping us to eliminate the fundamental obstacles that aggravate social division and conflict,” he said.
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.
Some of Yoon’s cabinet picks have been embroiled in allegations of ethical lapses and misdeeds. His health minister has been accused of using his status as head of a university hospital to help his children get into his medical school. The candidate denies the allegation.
Yoon, a novice in national party politics as well as foreign policy, 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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