S. Korean president-elect pledges tougher stance on N. Korea

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South Korea's president-elect Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during a news conference at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea Thursday, March 10, 2022. Yoon was elected South Koreas president in a win expected to herald a drive to seek a stronger alliance with the United States and take a tougher line on North Korea. (Kim Hong-ji/Pool Photo via AP)

SEOUL – South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol said Thursday he will solidify an alliance with the United States, build a powerful military and sternly cope with North Korean provocations, hours after he won a hard-fought election to become the country's next leader.

Yoon, a conservative whose single five-year term begins in May, said during the campaign that he would make a stronger alliance with the United States the center of his foreign policy. He accused outgoing liberal President Moon Jae-in of tilting toward North Korea and China and away from the U.S. He also stressed a need to recognize the strategic importance of repairing ties with Japan despite a bitter dispute over wartime history.

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Some experts say a Yoon government will likely be able to reinforce ties with Washington and improve relations with Tokyo, but will probably be unable to avoid friction with North Korea and China.

“I’ll rebuild the South Korea-U.S. alliance. I’ll (make) it a strategic comprehensive alliance while sharing key values like liberal democracy, a market economy and human rights," Yoon said in a televised news conference.

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

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

North Korea didn't immediately comment on Yoon’s victory. In recent weeks, it has tested a spate of sophisticated, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in what experts call an attempt to modernize its weapons arsenal and pressure the Biden administration into making concessions such as an easing of sanctions amid stalled nuclear diplomacy.

Last week, North Korea said it tested cameras and other systems needed to operate a spy satellite. Its state media on Thursday cited leader Kim Jong Un as saying his country needs 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.

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

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Thursday expressed a desire to communicate with Yoon to improve ties. But he said Tokyo will stick to its position that all compensation issues were settled in a 1965 treaty.

Yoon, who ran on the ticket of the main opposition People Power Party, 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 liberal governing party candidate Lee Jae-myung. The two spent months slamming, mocking and demonizing each other in one of the most bitter political campaigns in recent memory, aggravating the country’s already severe domestic division.

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

They said Yoon’s hard-line stance on North Korea would unnecessarily provoke the North, and picking sides between Washington and Beijing would pose a greater security threat to Seoul. Yoon accused the Moon administration of being “submissive” to North Korea and China at the expense of South Korea's 70-year alliance with the United States.

Yoon’s razor-thin victory against Lee was partly seen as a referendum on Moon's liberal government, whose popularity waned in recent years over failures to deal with stark economic inequalities, decaying job markets and soaring house prices that present bleak financial futures for many people in their 20s and 30s.

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

On domestic issues, Yoon faces urgent tasks to suppress a record-breaking COVID-19 surge, ease widening economic inequalities and runaway housing prices and heal a nation sharply split along regional lines, ideologies, age and gender.

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

While he was apparently trying 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 gains in male votes 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 and repeated a view that the country no longer has 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 a 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 would design plans to reinforce the country’s medical capacities and create more effective financial packages to help devastated service sector businesses.

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