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South Korea’s new president-elect vows a tougher line on the North

South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol
South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during a news conference at the National Assembly in Seoul on Thursday.
(Kim Hong-ji / Pool Photo)
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South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol said Thursday he would solidify an alliance with the United States, build up a powerful military and deal sternly with North Korean provocations, hours after he won the country’s hard-fought election to become its next leader.

Yoon, whose five-year term is to begin in May, said during his campaign that he would make a stronger alliance with the U.S. the center of his foreign policy. He has accused outgoing liberal President Moon Jae-in of tilting toward Pyongyang and Beijing and away from Washington. He has also stressed the need to recognize the strategic importance of repairing ties with Tokyo despite recent disputes.

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

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“I’ll rebuild the South Korea-U.S. 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 news conference.

“I’ll establish a strong military capacity to deter any provocation completely,” Yoon said. “I’ll firmly deal with illicit, unreasonable behavior by North Korea in a principled manner, though I’ll always leave a door for South-North talks open.”

After his election win, he spoke with President Biden on the phone. According to a White House statement, Biden congratulated Yoon on the election and emphasized the U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea. The statement said the two also committed to maintaining close coordination on how to address the threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

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North Korea hasn’t made any comments on Yoon’s election. In recent weeks, it’s 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 on sanctions relief amid stalled diplomacy.

Last week, North Korea said it tested cameras and other systems needed to operate a spy satellite. Its state media Thursday cited leader Kim Jong Un as saying his country needed reconnaissance satellites to monitor “the aggression troops of the U.S. imperialism and its vassal forces.”

On Japan, Yoon said Seoul and Tokyo should focus on building future-oriented ties. “The focus in South Korea-Japan relations should be finding future paths that would benefit the people of both countries,” he said.

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The two countries are both key U.S. allies and closely linked to each other economically and culturally, but their relations sank to post-war lows during Moon’s presidency over disputes related to Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.

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Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Thursday expressed a desire to communicate with Yoon to bring back good ties. But he said Tokyo would stick to its position that all compensation issues arising from the occupation were settled by a 1965 bilateral treaty.

Yoon, who ran on the ticket of the main opposition People Power Party, had 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 of some of Moon’s allies.

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

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

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They said Yoon’s hard-line 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.

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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.

During the campaign, Yoon focused much of his message on vows to create more jobs and restore social mobility by creating a fairer, competitive environment for young people. He fiercely criticized Moon’s government over the policy failures and high-profile investment scandals surrounding Moon’s allies, which he said exposed hypocrisy and disregard for the law.

Yoon will face the urgent tasks of suppressing a record-breaking COVID-19 surge, easing widening economic inequalities and runaway house prices and healing a nation sharply split by regional antagonism, ideology, age and gender.

Yoon was criticized during the campaign for stoking gender hostilities by promising to abolish the country’s Gender Equality and Family Ministry, which he accused of pushing policies unfair toward men.

Although he was apparently trying to win the votes of young men who decry gender-equality policies and the loss of traditional privileges in a hyper-competitive job market, exit polls released after Wednesday’s election indicated that his voting gains among men were largely canceled out by young women who swung toward Lee.

During Thursday’s news conference, Yoon rejected accusations that his campaign raised gender tensions but repeated a view that the country no longer had structural barriers to women’s success.

“Regarding gender issues, laws and systems are pretty much in place now,” he said. “Instead of approaching the issue as a matter of equality and fairness between groups, I think the government should provide stronger response and protection regarding individual cases of unfairness.”

Yoon said building a better pandemic response would be a priority for his transition committee, which will have a team dedicated to planning how to reinforce the country’s medical capacities and offer more effective financial aid to devastated service-sector businesses.

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