By Lee Haye-ah
SEOUL, March 25 (Yonhap) -- President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol faces a key test of his North Korea policy, as the way he handles the North's launch this week of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) could set the tone for his relations with Kim Jong-un over the next five years.
Yoon campaigned under the slogan of achieving "peace through strength," a promise he fleshed out by suggesting a preemptive strike on North Korea in the event of an imminent threat and by pledging to deploy additional units of the U.S. THAAD antimissile system in South Korea.
This week he signaled his hard-line approach to the North by characterizing its artillery firing Sunday as a violation of a 2018 inter-Korean military tension reduction agreement, a claim that was challenged by the current government.
Yoon initially did not comment on North Korea's ICBM test Thursday out of courtesy to the outgoing administration.
On Friday, however, he issued a warning on his Facebook page.
"I sternly warn North Korea that there is nothing that can be gained from provocations," Yoon wrote. "The Republic of Korea will safeguard freedom and peace by building a stronger security posture."
Yoon's transition team had condemned the launch Thursday, calling it a scrapping of the North's self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests, a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, and a serious provocation threatening South Korea's security.
"The transition committee strongly condemns such provocative acts that threaten peace in Northeast Asia, including the Korean Peninsula, and the world," it had said in a statement. "We must respond strongly to North Korea's provocations by cooperating with the international community upon the foundation of close coordination between South Korea and the United States."
The committee had urged the U.N. Security Council to convene an emergency meeting and denounce the North's launch while taking corresponding action.
It had also called on the Moon Jae-in government to defend the people's safety by devising firm political, diplomatic and military measures in response to North Korea's threats.
North Korea's launch is expected to be a key topic of discussion when Yoon holds a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday afternoon.
"The provocation that escalated tensions on the Korean Peninsula cannot help but be mentioned," Yoon's spokesperson, Kim Eun-hye, told a press briefing Friday, noting Yoon met with his advisers Thursday night to discuss the launch.
Yoon is also likely to coordinate closely with Washington after having pledged to "rebuild" the South Korea-U.S. alliance, "normalize" the allies' combined military exercises and enhance their extended deterrence against North Korea's threats.
"President-elect Yoon is already planning to strengthen the South Korea-U.S. alliance and cooperation between South Korea, the U.S. and Japan," Park Won-gon, professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University, said.
"If North Korea stages provocations like this, the need for that will increase," he said.
During a policy briefing with the unification ministry this week, the transition team said the incoming government's North Korea policy is not "hard-line" and that the new administration will be open to dialogue with the regime.
The ICBM launch has now put that policy to the test. At the same time, it has proved the North's track record of carrying out major provocations during government transition periods in the South.
In May 2017, shortly after Moon took office, North Korea launched an intermediate range ballistic missile and a medium range ballistic missile. The Moon government did not have a transition period, because it followed the ouster of President Park Geun-hye.
In February 2013, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test just 13 days before Park took office.
Similar events occurred around the inaugurations of former Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Roh Moo-hyun.
"North Korea has resumed its practice of staging provocations at the start of a new administration to test its response," Choi Yong-hwan, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy, said.
"The North is doing what it wants to do by taking advantage of a delicate time when it's difficult for South Korea to respond in a consistent manner," he said.
The launch also comes at an awkward time, when discord between the outgoing and incoming administrations has deepened over Yoon's plan to relocate the presidential office to the defense ministry compound.
Moon's office has opposed the plan, citing a possible security vacuum that could result from the defense ministry moving its offices to make room for the presidential office.
Yoon's spokesperson was asked if the incoming administration will stick to its relocation plan despite the rising tensions caused by the ICBM launch.
"On the contrary, I believe when it comes to our moving into the defense ministry compound, the people trusted us and chose us to build a more reliable and stronger security power," Kim said at the briefing.
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