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How South Korea’s Yoon might make good on tough talk

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

The outcome of the Korean presidential election marks what may be a turning point in Korean history — repudiation, albeit by an eyelash — of five years of leftist leadership. The hundreds of thousands who massed nightly in central Seoul and other cities in late 2016 and early 2017 are nowhere to be seen. Their Candlelight Revolution, so named from the LED candles they carried to symbolize their peaceful but undying assault on then-President Park Geun-hye, has faded into the long history of South Korean protests against corrupt regimes.

Yoon Suk-yeol, the conservative People Power Party lawyer who won by a margin of 0.73 percent of the votes, promises to reverse the damage done to Korea-U.S. relations during the presidency of Moon Jae-in. It was Moon, as leader of the Minjoo or Democratic Party, who led the protest against Park and then got elected by an overwhelming majority after seeing her ousted, impeached and jailed for corruption and abuse of authority. 

In a gesture of magnanimity, Moon before last Christmas pardoned Park, daughter of the long-ruling dictator Park Chung-hee, freeing her from a lengthy prison term. That act of mercy was calculated to win votes for Lee Jae-myung, his party’s candidate, and embarrass Yoon, who by terrific irony as Moon’s prosecutor-general for a year and seven months had pressed the charges against Park and her conservative predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, also sentenced to a lengthy term. That gesture, however, did little to win votes for Lee, who would have intensified the policies of Moon, barred from a second term by Korea’s “democracy constitution.” 

The dreams of the Candlelight Revolution, which I witnessed night after night in central Seoul, were barely mentioned in a fractious campaign dominated by domestic fears engendered by galloping real estate prices, a rising rich-poor gap, and labor problems that Moon seemed incapable of resolving. If South Koreans were not too worried by North Korea’s nuclear and missile program, North Korea was definitely at the top of concerns among American officials trying to figure out what North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would be up to next. 

President Biden’s congratulatory call to Yoon after confirmation of his victory at around 4 a.m. on March 10, Seoul time (2 p.m. on March 9 in Washington) was more than pro forma. “Together,” said the White House, with a collective sigh of relief, “they affirmed the strength of the U.S.-ROK alliance” and “reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea.” 

Moon, as president, had cast into doubt the historic relationship by pressing for an “end-of-war” declaration that the North will never accept as long as the alliance remains in force and the U.S. has 28,500 troops in Korea. Lee had even talked about getting rid of sanctions and dropping demands for the North to get rid of its nukes and missiles.

Yoon aligned himself in his campaign with U.S. calls for denuclearization as a prelude to any real deal with the North, and now needs to make good on the tough talk. He promised to “present a very clear road map for denuclearizing North Korea.” In fact, he said, if elected he would try “to convince our allies, the United States and Japan, that the North Korean nuclear issue can be resolved.” 

How does Yoon propose to back up the rhetoric? He might be forgiven if he never comes up with a viable solution for an issue that has defied diplomats for decades, but hawks in Tokyo and Washington, particularly in the Pentagon, will surely appreciate some of the ways he has suggested for standing up to the North. 

How about approving joint military exercises with forces on the ground, in the air and at sea, as in the years before Donald Trump canceled the war games after his summit with North Korea’s Kim in Singapore in June 2018? Military people believe war games with troops in action are needed in addition to the computer games the Americans and South Koreans have played for the past three years. And why not install more missiles for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, known as THAAD, like those implanted nearly five years ago 135 miles south of Seoul?

The answers to these questions are not as simple as some would like to believe. More THAAD missiles would infuriate China, which kicked out Korean firms and stopped tours to Korea after the first of them were installed. And a return to full-scale joint exercises would incentivize North Korea to become all the more aggressive. Already North Korea is reportedly rebuilding its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri near the northeast coast where the North has conducted all six of its underground nuclear tests. After the last test, in September 2017, tunnels were reported to have collapsed and 200 people killed — a small price to pay for a dictator who has overseen the deaths of tens of thousands in a sprawling gulag system in nearby mountains.

As if there were any doubts about what Kim has in mind, he has just visited the Sohae Satellite Launching Station near the northwestern border with China, a sign he might soon order the launch of a satellite that’s really a version of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a warhead to the U.S.

Yoon might also consider lesser steps that are not quite military but sure to upset the North Koreans. How about permitting defectors to resume launching balloons laden with leaflets that dispense unsavory news and gossip about the Kim dynasty to North Koreans who are otherwise ignorant of such tidings? And what about restoring shortwave radio programs telling North Koreans nasty stuff the regime doesn’t want people to hear? 

Yoon and his advisers will have to weigh the risks as carefully as any of their predecessors. “Korean society is deeply divided in terms of ideology,” said Kang Won-taek, a professor of international relations at Seoul National University. Yoon, he reminded journalists at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club, had less than half the votes. Then too, he said, Yoon must “bear in mind China is a very strong economic partner,” not to mention North Korea’s great ally. “I do believe the alliance with the U.S. will become stronger,” he said, but “changes will occur gradually.”

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 Conservatism in South Korea Donald Trump Joe Biden Kim Jong Un North Korea–South Korea relations Presidents of South Korea Yoon Suk-yeol

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