SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Yoon Suk Yeol, a conservative political neophyte, took office as South Korea’s new president Tuesday with a vow to pursue a negotiated settlement of North Korea’s threatening nuclear program and an offer of “an audacious plan” to improve Pyongyang’s economy if it abandons its nuclear weapons.
Yoon, who previously promised a tougher stance on North Korea, avoided tough words during his inaugural speech amid growing worries that the North is preparing for its first nuclear bomb test in nearly five years. North Korea has rejected similar past overtures by South Korean leaders that link incentives to progress in its denuclearization.
“While North Korea’s nuclear weapon 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. “North Korea’s denuclearization will greatly contribute to bringing lasting peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and beyond.”
Yoon also addressed the country’s growing economic problems, saying that decaying job markets and a widening gap between the rich and poor are brewing a democratic crisis by stoking “internal strife and discord” and fueling a spread of “anti-intellectualism” as people lose their sense of community and belonging.
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. Pyongyang appears to be trying to rattle Yoon’s incoming government while modernizing its weapons arsenals and pressuring the Biden administration into relaxing sanctions on the North. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently warned that his nuclear weapons won’t be confined to their primary mission of deterring war if his national interests are threatened.
Yoon, 61, began his five-year term at midnight Monday by taking command of South Korea’s 555,000-member military and receiving a briefing on North Korea from his military chief at the new presidential office in central Seoul, formerly the Defense Ministry building.
Won In-Choul, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, told him in a video conference that North Korea is ready to conduct a nuclear test if Kim decides to do so. Yoon then ordered military commanders to maintain a firm military readiness, saying that “the security situation on the Korean Peninsula is very grave.”
Yoon faces a tougher mix of foreign policy and domestic challenges than other recent South Korean leaders first encountered.
The U.S.-China confrontation is posing a separate security dilemma for South Korea, while ties with Japan remain strained over history and trade disputes. South Korea is also bracing for the fallout of Russia’s war on Ukraine in global energy markets.
Domestically, some of Yoon’s major 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. The COVID-19 crisis has battered an economy already hit by a bleak job market, growing personal debt and runaway housing prices and widening rich-poor gaps.
He’s been 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 outgoing liberal President Moon Jae-in’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, a foreign policy novice, also hasn’t shown a clear vision for how to navigate the world’s 10th-largest economy amid challenges such as North Korea’s advancing nuclear arsenal, an intensifying U.S.-China rivalry and pandemic-hit livelihoods.
During his inaugural speech, Yoon spoke of the country’s deep political divide along ideological and generational lines and issued a call for unity. He vowed to spur economic growth, which he said would heal much of the country’s social problems.
“Rapid growth will open up new opportunities. It will improve social mobility, thereby helping us get rid of the fundamental obstacles that are aggravating social divide and conflicts,” he said.
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.
Some of Yoon’s Cabinet picks have been embroiled in allegations of ethical lapses and misdeeds. His health minister was accused of using his status as head of a university hospital to help his children enter its medical school. The nominee denies the allegation.
Yoon, a novice in domestic party politics as well as foreign policy, 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.