North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets then-US president Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the border village of Panmunjom on June 30, 2019. Attempts at North-South rapprochement are likely about to be reset under a new conservative president. Photo: AFP / KCNA via KNS

South Korea’s president-designate, Yoon Seok-yeol of the People Power Party, is widely expected to revive a conservative foreign policy, implying a cozier partnership with the United States and thereby a tougher line against Pyongyang and Beijing. 

Also read: What to expect from Korean President-elect Yoon

In the midst of the Ukraine crisis, this could also make South Korea vulnerable to Moscow’s retaliation to its backing Western sanctions impacting its imports from Russia – 60% of which constitute crude and refined petroleum.

So as the presidential transition committee begins preparing Yoon to take command of the administration by May 10, the first uphill task it faces is to redress various perception-management challenges about his domestic and foreign-policy postures and priorities.

North-South brinkmanship

The most anticipated and potentially game-changing move could be the Yoon administration intensifying brinkmanship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Conservatives have generally been tough on North Korea, and Yoon, a strong critic of outgoing President Moon Jae-in, insists on enforcing severe sanctions and pursuing a “no dialogue” policy until North Korea completely disarms itself of nuclear weapons and missiles. 

Alluding to the Ukraine crisis during a presidential debate last month, Yoon said that “a country’s national security and peace cannot be protected by paper and ink.” On another occasion he said, “Peace is meaningless unless it is backed by power.”

All this is expected to see his presidency advancing populist narratives and advocating military modernization. He has already spoken of building closer ties with the US, Japan and the Quadrilateral Security Framework to stand up to Beijing.

After North Korea’s ninth missile test of this year last Saturday, Yoon labeled it as Pyongyang’s attempt to influence the South’s presidential elections in favor of his opponent Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party, which he says has been indulgent toward Kim.

As if taking it personally, in one of his election rallies Yoon said: “I would [teach] him some manners and make him come to his senses completely.” Such words have ignited speculations of all kinds.

Now, as if to reinforce Yoon’s prognosis, the US Directorate of National Intelligence’s annual Worldwide Threat Assessment released on Monday insinuates that North Korea’s missiles launches since January have laid the groundwork for its return to tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear weapons, their first since 2017.

Meanwhile, experts continue to allude to North Korea’s underdeveloped nuclear force structures and unclear nuclear doctrine posing the toughest puzzle to calibrate any response to unpredictable Kim Jong Un.

This cocktail of much-anticipated brinkmanship and uncertainty of motives will push Yoon’s presidency into buying additional anti-missile systems from the US to strengthen its deterrence against North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles. However, this in turn will only push North Korea to accelerate development of sea-based nuclear platforms.

Moreover, this would also make Beijing anxious of forward US deployment, leading it to further expansion of its anti-ballistic-missile capabilities.

Challenges of national unity

The key to understanding whether Yoon’s bravado will materialize into action lies in the nature of the election’s result as well as the issues that persisted during the hustings.  Analysts had projected the presidential election to be a referendum on Moon Jae-in’s indulgences with North Korea, including facilitating two summit meetings between Kim Jong Un and then-US president Donald Trump. 

Lately there had even been nasty allegations of corruption and other malicious charges against the Moon administration. However, Yoon Seok-yeol barely scraped through with a victory in the presidential election with a margin of less than a 1%, which hardly provides him a solid mandate for adventurous policies.

Indeed, the foremost challenge for Yoon as president will be to work for national unity. To take his opponents in confidence will be an uphill task, as South Korean politics has become extremely divided and chaotic.

South Korea has just witnessed one of its most bitterly fought presidential elections, which ended in a nail-bitingly close finish, with Yoon getting 48.56% of votes against his nearest rival Lee Jae-myung’s 47.83%. This is bound to circumscribe his attempts at reversing President Moon’s “dialogue and peace” approach.

Also, a cursory look at a whole range of persistent issues in the debates shows that these were largely about the widening class inequality, rising housing prices, stagnant economic growth, unemployment, gender inequality and corruption scandals.

Understandably, in his victory speech on Thursday, Yoon promised to “pay attention to people’s livelihoods, [and] provide warm welfare services to the needy” as his No 1 priority.

In practical terms, as he begins his five-year term in office, Yoon has to deal with various decision-making structures to implement his promises.

And here, at least until the next general elections in April 2024, all his decisions will need support from the opposition-dominated National Assembly, where the Democratic Party alone has 172 seats compared with Yoon’s PPP having 106 seats. Even appointment of his prime minister, which requires 164 members’ presence, could become daunting.

Economic concerns

As Yoon Seok-yeol enters the presidential Blue House in Seoul and takes charge of Asia’s fourth-largest and the world’s 10th-largest economy, he faces enormous internal challenges of a continuing pandemic, unemployment, high inflation and currency volatility, which will require all his energies. 

Even in foreign policy, continuing tensions between South Korea’s two largest trading partners, the US and China, will circumscribe Yoon’s priorities.

Yoon is new to politics. Having spent 27 years of his career as a prosecutor, he came into the national limelight only while prosecuting former president Park Geun-hye. Until last year, he was President Moon’s prosecutor general, a post from which he resigned to join and then lead Park’s party to victory in the presidential election.

The ruling Democratic Party has had a much-nuanced approach, proposing greater reconciliation with Pyongyang and a pragmatic approach toward the US-China wars of trade and technology. Moon Jae-in was elected president in 2017 after the conservative president Park Geun-hye was impeached and removed from office over corruption. 

As the conservatives lay in shambles until they reorganized themselves as the PPP in 2020, President Moon’s popularity ratings shot up to a high of 83%, enabling him to take bold and hyperactive initiatives with North Korea, including facilitating the two summits between Kim and Trump. 

Conclusion

Yoon will begin his term in power completely unlike Moon Jae-in. Critics call Yoon a political neophyte, with no experience in politics; especially for his recent public gaffes and retractions from foot-in-mouth statements, they compare him to Donald Trump.

Yoon recently referred to the authoritarian late president Chun Doo-hwan – responsible for a massacre of protesters in 1980 – as being “good at politics,” which he later retracted. Likewise, he announced his intention to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and blamed the rise of feminism for South Korea’s low birth rates.

Not that Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party and other contenders fared any better, but they are not the ones taking over as president and will not be subject to such scrutiny.

What remains to be seen is whether President Yoon will distance himself from Candidate Yoon to recast his handling of South Korea’s most immediate existential threats, from an ongoing pandemic, a sliding economy causing class divisions and, to top it all, the escalating threats from North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU

Swaran Singh

Dr Swaran Singh is professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; president of Association of Asia Scholars (asiascholars.in); adjunct senior fellow at The Charhar Institute, Beijing; senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Colombo; and visiting professor, Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies, Kunming (China).