SEOUL – After winning a bitterly contested presidential election, South Korean conservative Yoon Suk Yeol will enter office facing a quickly growing North Korean nuclear threat — and with few easy choices ahead to deal with it.
A former prosecutor with no foreign policy experience who kickstarted his political career nine months ago, Yoon will face a turbulent moment in global affairs and the decades-old standoff with the North, over which many experts see Seoul as having lost leverage under the policies of outgoing President Moon Jae-in.
It appears Yoon will be tested quickly, possibly even before he starts his presidency in May. North Korea often attempts to rattle new administrations in Washington or Seoul with major weapons demonstrations and has been signaling a resumption of long-range missile testing this year.
Yoon, who narrowly beat out a liberal ruling party rival in last week’s election, has rejected pursuing “talks for talks’ sake” and vowed to be sterner with Pyongyang, as the North’s accelerating weapons tests in 2022 show a renewed strategy of brinkmanship to pressure Washington and Seoul into giving it badly needed relief from economic sanctions.
But despite Yoon’s desire to do something different from the dovish government of Moon, there’s no “silver bullet” policy his administration could adopt for dealing with North Korea, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University.
Improved “inter-Korean relations” will largely depend on the willingness of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to engage with diplomacy and negotiate sanctions relief for denuclearization steps, he said.
“Such willingness is unlikely to materialize until coronavirus risks decrease and domestic economic pressures increase,” he explained.
North Korea has conducted nine rounds of missile launches in 2022 alone, with signs of more to come. State media said Friday that Kim Jong Un instructed officials to expand a satellite launch facility to fire a variety of rockets. His comments followed a pair of missile firings in recent weeks that the U.S. and South Korean militaries linked with the development of a new intercontinental ballistic missile system that could be tested at full range soon.
South Korea’s military has also detected signs that the North is possibly restoring previously detonated tunnels at a nuclear testing ground that was last active in 2017.
North Korea’s stubborn efforts to cement itself as a nuclear power and win economic benefits from a position of strength may present daunting challenges for Yoon. Amid a deepening freeze in nuclear negotiations with Washington and pandemic border closures, North Korea has clearly stated it has no intentions to include Seoul in discussions about its nuclear weapons program, which Kim sees as his strongest guarantee of survival.
Although Yoon plans to restore South Korea’s leverage by bolstering its alliance with the U.S., North Korea seems further down the priority list for Washington, which is preoccupied with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and an intensifying rivalry with China.
Yoon, surrounded by foreign policy advisers who have served under Seoul’s previous conservative governments, has called for maintaining sanctions and pressure until the North takes meaningful steps to wind down its weapons program.
He has vowed the resumption of major U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which were suspended or significantly downsized in recent years to make room for diplomacy with North Korea.
He also wants an additional deployment of an advanced U.S. anti-missile system, called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, to better protect the capital Seoul from North Korean missile threats, a move that would infuriate both Pyongyang and Beijing. He plans to further bolster South Korea’s defense by pursuing pre-emptive strike capabilities to deter North Korean attacks.
However, the Biden administration may not be able to support all of Yoon’s demands and could seek a more assertive role from South Korea in the alliance that goes beyond responding to North Korea.
Washington may call for Yoon’s government to take a stronger stance toward China, South Korea’s biggest trading partner, or possibly to participate in a newly launched security partnership between the United States, Australia and Britain, according to Park Won Gon, a professor of North Korea studies at Ewha.
In the face of looming foreign policy dilemmas with China, North Korea and the U.S., Yoon will also have to navigate domestic political challenges as Parliament will still be controlled by the country’s liberal party.
“South Korea has reached a point where it has to make a choice one way or another and be willing to pay the price for that choice,” Park said. “South Korea just can’t afford to put everything on the line and strengthen its alliance with Washington unconditionally to confront Beijing.”
North Korea will be much less hesitant in its attempts to “tame” Yoon’s upcoming government with a long-range rocket test, said analyst Kim Yeol Soo at South Korea’s Korea Institute for Military Affairs. After taking office, Yoon will likely respond to serious North Korean provocations by staging joint military exercises with the U.S., which the North condemn as invasion rehearsals. That would make a swift resumption of diplomacy unlikely.
“If they fire a rocket, there will be no talks for at least six months,” said Kim.
Moon, a son of North Korean war refugees, was credited for calming war fears triggered by North Korean nuclear and ICBM tests in 2017. He used the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics as an opening to set up summits with Kim and then lobbied hard for Kim’s first meeting with then-U.S. President Donald Trump in June that year.
The diplomacy derailed after the second Kim-Trump meeting in 2019, when the Americans rejected North Korea’s demand for a major release of U.S.-led sanctions against the North in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.
Kim has since vowed to strengthen his nuclear forces in the face of “gangster-like” U.S. pressure and rapidly expanded his arsenal of nuclear-capable short-range missiles threatening South Korea. The North also severed all cooperation with the South while expressing anger over Seoul’s inability to wrest concessions from Washington on its behalf. The North blew up an empty inter-Korean liaison office in 2020 to demonstrate its displeasure.
The Moon government’s largely muted response to North Korea’s short-range missile tests and belligerent behavior since 2019 damaged Seoul’s leverage with Pyongyang by eliminating a sense of reciprocity, Park said.
“South Korea’s influence over North Korea is now very limited,” Park said. “North Korea wants to be recognized as a nuclear power foremost and believes all of its other problems will be taken care of from there. Inter-Korean relations is not a priority.”