New SKorea leader wants tougher NKorea stance

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Read this in The Manila Times digital edition.

SEOUL MAN South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during a news conference at the National Assembly in Seoul on Thursday, March 10, 2022. AP PHOTO

SEOUL MAN South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during a news conference at the National Assembly in Seoul on Thursday, March 10, 2022. AP PHOTO

SEOUL: South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol said on Thursday he would solidify an alliance with the United States, build up a powerful military and sternly cope with North Korean provocations, hours after he won the country’s hard-fought election to become its next leader.

Yoon, whose single five-year term will begin in May, said during his campaign he would make a stronger alliance with the US the center of his foreign policy. He’s accused outgoing liberal President Moon Jae-in of tilting toward Pyongyang and Beijing and away from Washington.

He also stressed the need to recognize the strategic importance of repairing ties with Tokyo despite recent bilateral historical disputes.

Some experts say a Yoon government is likely to be able to reinforce relations with Washington and improve relations with Tokyo, but can’t really avoid frictions with Pyongyang and Beijing.

“I’ll rebuild the South Korea-US alliance. I’ll [make] it a strategic comprehensive alliance while sharing key values like a liberal democracy, a market economy and human rights,” Yoon told a televised news conference.

“I’ll establish a strong military capacity to deter any provocation completely and protect the people’s safety and property and our territory and sovereignty,” he said.

“I’ll firmly deal with illicit, unreasonable behavior by North Korea in a principled manner, though I’ll always leave [the] door for South-North talks open,” the new leader added.

US commitment

After his victory, Yoon spoke with US President Joe Biden on the phone. According to a White House statement, Biden congratulated Yoon on the election and emphasized America’s commitment to the defense of South Korea. The two also committed to maintain close coordination on addressing the threats posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

North Korea hasn’t made any comment on Yoon’s election. In recent weeks, it has launched a spate of sophisticated, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in what experts call an attempt to modernize its weapons arsenal and pressure the Biden administration to making concessions, like sanctions relief.

Moon has pushed hard to broker denuclearization deals between Pyongyang and Washington and once helped arrange a summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and then-US president Donald Trump in 2018. But the US-North Korea diplomacy eventually collapsed due to disputes over America-led sanctions on the North.

On Japan, Yoon said Seoul and Tokyo should focus on building “future-oriented” ties. The two countries are both key US allies and closely linked to each other economically and culturally, but their relations sank to postwar lows during Moon’s presidency over disputes related to Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.

“The focus in South Korea-Japan relations should be finding future paths that would benefit the people of both countries,” Yoon said. “During this process of future-focused cooperation, we also need to come together and discuss, find the truths and resolve issues related to the past.”

Top prosecutor

Yoon, who ran on the ticket of the main opposition People Power Party, previously served as Moon’s prosecutor general. But he left the Moon government and joined the opposition last year after high-profile infighting over his investigations on some of Moon’s allies.

Wednesday’s election was largely a two-way showdown between Yoon and liberal ruling party candidate Lee Jae-myung. The two spent months slamming, mocking and demonizing each other in one of the most bitter political campaigns in recent memory, aggravating the country’s already severe domestic division.

Lee and his allies attacked Yoon over his lack of experience in foreign policy and other major state affairs.

They said Yoon’s hardline stance on North Korea would unnecessarily provoke Pyongyang, and picking a side between Washington and Beijing would pose greater security threats to Seoul. Yoon has accused the Moon administration of being “submissive” to Pyongyang and Beijing at the expense of Seoul’s 70-year alliance with Washington.

Yoon’s razor-thin victory against Lee was partly seen as a referendum on the liberal government, whose popularity waned in recent years over failures to deal with stark economic inequalities, decaying job markets and soaring house prices that paint bleak financial futures for many people in their 20s and 30s.

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