The tests begin for Yoon Suk-yeol as South Korea’s president

Associated Press
Yoon Suk-yeol, a former prosecutor, will be inaugurated as South Korea’s conservative president on May 10, 2022.

Yoon Suk-yeol on Tuesday assumes the presidency of South Korea amid high hopes for improved relations with the U.S. and Japan, a somewhat stronger stand against China’s attempts at pressuring the South away from the American orbit, and no more fatuous talk about an end-of-war agreement with North Korea.

If that prognosis seems upbeat, almost optimistic, it will not be easy for Yoon to live up to the hype. A former prosecutor with no political experience before running for president, he barely defeated the candidate of the left-leaning party of outgoing President Moon Jae-in and will face a National Assembly dominated by members of Moon’s Minjoo or Democratic Party. Quite quickly, Yoon is bound to discover that politics is the art of the possible, and he will have to make accommodations and compromises to come close to accomplishing his goals.

An economy upset by the familiar bogies of high real estate prices, inflation and youth unemployment may count for more than foreign policy to many Koreans while Yoon works to alter the direction or drift of foreign policy under Moon. An early test will be to see if Yoon endorses joint military exercises with the U.S., featuring American and Korean troops on the ground, aircraft from both countries buzzing overhead, and U.S. aircraft carriers churning the waters offshore.

The U.S. and South Korea have not had real-live war games since Donald Trump canceled them after his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June 2018. American commanders say the computerized exercises the Americans and South Koreans play several times a year are fine but can’t compare with troops in action.

It’s one thing for Yoon to have vowed while campaigning to promote exercises with the Americans but quite another to do it, knowing that Kim will increase the threat level in outbursts that are easy to dismiss as bluff and bluster but are frightening, nonetheless. Kim’s game often has been to rev up the rhetoric, conduct more missile tests and get everyone in Washington and Seoul scurrying around promoting “dialogue.” Then come the “talks” amid tremendous publicity and out comes a deal that’s made to be broken.

The pattern has reached an apotheosis of sorts with Kim ranting about using his nuclear weapons first, rather than waiting to be attacked. In meetings with his top commanders, he has proclaimed the need to “preemptively and thoroughly contain and frustrate all dangerous attempts and threatening moves, including ever-escalating nuclear threats from hostile forces.”

It’s the N-word — nuclear — that is most alarming. Nobody thinks Kim is about to launch a nuclear strike, considering the retribution that might destroy his regime, but he does seem anxious to conduct the North’s seventh underground nuclear blast, its first since September 2017. He’s also sure to keep ordering missile tests.

North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in March for the first time since November 2017 and intermittently pops off medium- and short-range missiles. If the latter are so routine that they don’t ring alarm bells very loudly, they may be as worrisome as ICBMs. Nobody seriously expects North Korea to launch an ICBM, with or without a nuclear warhead, at the United States, but Kim in a showdown could train short-range missiles on two of America’s largest overseas bases — Camp Humphreys, 40 miles south of Seoul, headquarters for America’s 28,500 troops in Korea, and nearby Osan Air Base, home of the U.S. Seventh Air Force.

Much depends on China, North Korea’s source of virtually all its oil and half its food. Without China’s approval, North Korea, essentially a Chinese protectorate, cannot go much beyond rhetoric. China, as South Korea’s biggest trading partner, also will exercise a restraining influence over Yoon’s desire to defy Chinese power and influence while improving relations with the U.S. NK News, a website in Seoul, quoted Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of Global Times, a Chinese propaganda organ, warning: “If South Korea takes a path of turning hostile against its neighbors, the end of this path could be a Ukraine.” 

Chinese President Xi Jinping is not likely to risk China’s burgeoning trade surplus with the U.S. in a second Korean War, but such language suggests the treacherous issues Yoon must consider in fighting off China’s attempt at a stranglehold over both Koreas.

Yoon may have a foil against China in the form of improved relations with Japan, which had deteriorated sharply during Moon’s presidency. It’s a toss-up which of their great near-neighbors Koreans fear and dislike more, but anti-Chinese sentiment is so high now in South Korea that Yoon may be able to cooperate effectively with Japan on defense, particularly against North Korean missiles. No way would South Korea enter a treaty relationship with Japan, as the Americans would like, but both agree on insisting that North Korea get rid of its nuclear and missile program as a prerequisite for any real deal. Japan, limiting defense spending to 1 percent of its huge gross national product, is a sleeping giant whose military potential should not be underestimated, particularly by North Korea and China.

At the outset of the Yoon administration, if nothing else, we can be certain of threats and counter-threats. Yoon already has called North Korea the “main enemy,” a term that Moon scrupulously avoided, and influential South Koreans conservatives say the South should have its own nukes in case the U.S. folds up its “nuclear umbrella.” Yoon wants to reopen nuclear power plants that Moon shut down — a step, some say, toward developing warheads.

For sure, Yoon aims to upgrade the historic U.S.-Korean alliance while jettisoning “Sunshine Policy II,” successor to the Sunshine Policy of the late Kim Dae-Jung, president from 1998 to 2003. Yoon and President Biden should strengthen ties — in which American diplomats love to say there’s “no daylight between us” — when Biden visits Seoul on May 20-22 before going to Tokyo to reaffirm the equally vital U.S.-Japan alliance with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Central to both summits will be cooperation against North Korea. 

Biden, Yoon and Kishida won’t hold a trilateral summit, but will all talk up their undying relationship. How much, however, will change? Just as the leftist Moon failed to bring about “reconciliation” and renewed dialogue with North Korea, so the rightist Yoon may be dreaming impossible dreams. All that is certain is the North-South Korean confrontation will go on, hopefully not at the risk of Korean War II.

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.

Tags Donald Trump Kim Jong Un Kim Jong Un Missile tests moon jae-in North Korea South Korea Yoon Suk-yeol Yoon Suk-yeol

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