Yoon Suk-yeol: Will ‘South Korea’s Donald Trump’ worsen tensions with North Korea?

Experts fear the new president could antagonise Pyongyang and provoke it to conduct more missile tests

Shweta Sharma
Friday 11 March 2022 10:05
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<p>South Korea’s incoming president led conservatives back to power after winning a tightly contested presidential race </p>

South Korea’s incoming president led conservatives back to power after winning a tightly contested presidential race

South Korea’s newly elected president Yoon Suk-yeol, a conservative anti-feminist opposition figure often critiqued as the “South Korean Donald Trump”, will face a wide array of challenges including the North Korea issue when he replaces outgoing Moon Jae-in.

Mr Yoon, a 61-year-old former prosecutor and political novice with no foreign policy background, edged a narrow win with 0.8 percentage points or 263,000 votes, in a contest the likes of which has never been seen in the country.

His victory marked the return of the conservatives to power after five years of being in the opposition, and put a dramatic end to the ambitions of his left-liberal rival Lee Jae-myung.

In his first televised address on Thursday morning, the new president vowed to counter North Korea – which has been on a missile testing spree since the year began – with a tougher stance against its “illicit” and “unreasonable” provocations.

Analysts have raised fears Mr Yoon’s confrontational rhetoric could provide Kim Jong-un with a launchpad to escalate tensions between the two countries further, and that his foreign policy may be challenged by South Korea’s nuclear-wielding neighbour.

Barbara Kelemen, a specialist on geopolitical analysis at security intelligence firm Dragonfly, told The Independent that the US can see both nuclear and inter-continental ballistic missile testing by North Korea happening before the end of 2022 – defying UN bans that prohibit it from such exercises.

“The victory represents a great opportunity for the US, but also signals a potential for a more rocky relationship with Pyongyang,” Ms Kelemen said.

“Mr Yoon will probably be much less accommodative towards the North than his predecessor and demand complete denuclearisation before officially ending the war. This demand has proven unconstructive in the past, meaning that we are probably going to see more provocations by Pyongyang,” she added.

In his address, Mr Yoon said he would establish a strong military capacity to “deter any provocation completely”.

“I’ll firmly deal with illicit, unreasonable behaviour by North Korea in a principled manner, though I’ll always leave door for South-North talks open.”

Mr Yoon’s lack of political experience and his People Power Party’s minority party status in parliament, however, would mean “that confrontational politics will continue”, Fei Xue, Asia analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit, told The Independent.

Mr Fie said the South can end up “antagonising North Korea’s regime and further diminish the possibility of progress in diplomatic engagement”.

This could happen as a result of enhancing defence ties with the US, including resuming joint military exercises between the South Korean and US forces and establishing a new US missile defence system.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said Mr Kim’s regime has been taking notes from the unfolding Russia-Ukraine war and underscored that it is time for Seoul and Tokyo to hold Moscow accountable.

“The more that Seoul and Tokyo do to hold Moscow accountable, the more North Korea will be deterred from nuclear adventurism,” Mr Easley said.

“The Kim regime is watching the situation in Ukraine, but it isn’t historically accurate to draw negative lessons from Kyiv ‘giving up nukes’ because it didn’t actually have operational control of Soviet nuclear weapons,” he pointed out.

He said the US substantially helped Ukraine and Russia with “their loose nukes problem”.

“But that won’t prevent Pyongyang from adding Ukraine to its list of excuses to avoid denuclearisation,” he added.

The outgoing president, Mr Moon, had made diplomacy with North Korea central to his foreign policy, in a shift from the earlier approach under conservative president Park Geun-hye.

Mr Moon, who is the son of North Korean refugees and had fled to the South during the Korean war, had played a significant role in brokering negotiations between Mr Kim and Donald Trump in a landmark Hanoi summit which had eventually failed.

North Korea has since conducted a flurry of missile tests – seven in January alone, accounting for more than all the tests conducted in 2021 – triggering widespread condemnation from the US, South Korea and Japan.

As Mr Yoon looks to solidify an alliance with the US, the South Korean politician has been compared to Mr Trump by his critics and opponents, not just because he frequently employs anti-China rhetoric and has praised controversial political figures, but also because he is said to have a similar style of speaking.

Mr Fei recognised the Trump parallels drawn by critics of Mr Yoon, who has ascended to the highest echelons of power without any experience as a politician, and is adept at appealing to populist sentiments.

“He has made some controversial comments such as denying systematic gender discrimination in South Korea and praising an ex-military dictator,” Mr Fei said.

The South Korean leader’s domestic policy proposals, however, are unlike Mr Trump’s, as they are aligned to the traditional framework followed by the country’s conservative camp.

Sojin Lim, co-director of Korean studies at the University of Central Lancashire, likened Mr Trump’s and Mr Yoon’s representation in the media of their respective countries.

She told The Independent that, as Mr Trump’s cult of personality was harnessed through the US’s conservative media, Mr Yoon’s representation was given a boost by South Korea’s newspapers, most of which are conservative.

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