South Korea's new president takes power at a time of tension with the North

Yoon Suk-yeol during the inauguration ceremony as president of South Korea on May 10, 2022 in Seoul.

South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, took power on Tuesday with a call for North Korea to renounce its nuclear arsenal in exchange for economic incentives, at a time of heightened tension on the peninsula. .

Yoon, a 61-year-old conservative, came to power as North Korea adopts an increasingly belligerent stance. Pyongyang has carried out 15 military tests since the start of the year, two of them last week.

South Korea and the United States suspect the North Korean regime wants to resume nuclear tests.

On Tuesday, the new president led his first meeting with the main authorities of the General Staff in an underground bunker at the presidency’s headquarters.

In his inaugural address to the Seoul National Assembly, Yoon called on his northern neighbor to renounce its entire nuclear arsenal, which he described as a threat to global security.

If Pyonyang “genuinely embarks on a process towards complete denuclearization”, Yoon said he is willing to present a “bold plan” to help North Korea’s impoverished economy and improve the living standards of its people.

– An offer of dialogue –

“North Korea’s nuclear programs pose a threat, not only to our security, but to the whole of Northeast Asia,” the president added, before stressing that the “door of dialogue will remain open” to peacefully resolve this threat.

The new head of state said the country faces “multiple crises”, citing the covid-19 pandemic, problems in the supply chain and global conflicts that, according to him, “cast a long shadow” on South Korea.

“Koreans never surrendered, we became stronger and wiser,” he said.

For Park Won-gon, a professor at Ewha University, Yoon’s offer to help North Korea economically is an “old-fashioned” strategy.

“Since 2009, North Korea has said it will not give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for economic incentives,” Park told AFP.

– A “rude young man” –

The new president has promised more aggressive diplomacy after his predecessor Moon Jae-in’s failed attempts at rapprochement with North Korea.

After his election victory, Yoon said he would “severely” deal with the threat posed by the Kim Jong Un regime.

During the campaign, he referred to Kim as a “rude young man” whom he would teach “good manners”.

Yoon also said he is looking for a stronger relationship with the United States, the main ally against Pyongyang. President Joe Biden will visit Seoul at the end of May.

The American delegation at the inauguration was led by Douglas Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris. Japan and China, countries with which Yoon intends to smooth relations at some troubled moments, sent high-ranking representatives.

– Low popularity –

Domestically, public opinion’s growing frustration with Moon Jae-in’s liberal government appears to be at the root of Yoon’s victory.

Moon won the 2017 presidential election on a pledge to adopt a program based on equal opportunities in the world’s 10th largest economy, following the removal of his predecessor Park Geun-hye, dragged down by a corruption scandal.

But he was accused of leniency with his own allies who admitted to taking bribes. He has also been criticized for his economic policies, which some say have exacerbated the country’s inequalities.

Yoon will not have an easy term and takes power with a popularity rating of 41%, one of the lowest in South Korea’s democratic history for an early term, according to a recent Gallup poll.

One of the reasons, according to the research, is its decision to move the presidency headquarters from the Blue Palace to the former headquarters of the Ministry of Defense in downtown Seoul.

The move was not well received by public opinion and was seen as a risk for the country at a time of tension with North Korea.

Yoon claimed that the Blue Palace was the seat of the Japanese colonial administration between 1910 and 1945 and is a “symbol of imperial power”.

Nearly 40,000 people were invited to the inauguration ceremony, the most expensive in the country’s history, with a budget of 3.3 billion won ($2.6 million).

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