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(News Focus) Yoon confronted with N. Korea's growing threats, other geopolitical risks, alliance tasks

Defense 06:00 May 10, 2022

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, May 10 (Yonhap) -- As South Korea's new president, Yoon Suk-yeol faces a full plate of security and foreign policy challenges, including North Korea's nuclear menace, an intensifying Sino-U.S. rivalry and history-related rows with Japan.

Yoon's inauguration on Tuesday comes after the North went into overdrive with its missile tests from ground and sea amid apparent signs of preparations for a new nuclear test -- a stark reminder of the tough security environment on the Korean Peninsula.

Beyond the shores, geopolitical risks from the Sino-U.S. competition are lurking for the Yoon administration to navigate, while long-running tensions stemming from Japan's 1910-45 colonization of the peninsula remain unabated.

"Yoon is now set to start off with 'security deficit' following little to no progress in the preceding Moon Jae-in administration's initiative for inter-Korean reconciliation," Nam Chang-hee, a professor of international politics at Inha University, said.

"His inauguration comes against the backdrop of the challenging landscape marked by the North's continued missile tests, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and China's move raising pressure on Taiwan through its entries into Taiwan's air defense and identification zone," he added.

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol speaks during a ceremony disbanding his transition team in Seoul on May 6, 2022. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)

Chief among policy tasks for Yoon is coping with the North's escalating military threats.

Ahead of Yoon's inauguration, the North fired what was thought to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Wednesday and an apparent submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) three days later.

Speculation has also been rising that the North could carry out what would be its seventh nuclear test between Yoon's swearing-in and U.S. President Joe Biden's planned visit to Seoul for the two leaders' summit slated for May 21.

To address the North's rising threats, Yoon has vowed to strengthen the credibility of America's extended deterrence -- its stated commitment to using a full range of its military capabilities, both nuclear and conventional, to defend its ally South Korea.

Ensuring the enforceability of that deterrence has been a major issue amid concerns the North's ICBM, if fully operational, could keep American forces at bay, undermine the U.S. nuclear umbrella and eventually "decouple" the Seoul-Washington alliance.

Apart from deterrence, Yoon also envisions an inter-Korean thaw under a road map for cross-border cooperation, which involves economic development incentives given to the North in parallel with progress in the North's denuclearization efforts.

That road map has been met with both hopes and skepticism. Detractors said it is akin to former President Lee Myung-bak's unsuccessful initiative called the "Vision 3000: Denuclearization and Openness," under which the South pledged to help the North achieve $3,000 per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) in line with its denuclearization steps.

A major diplomatic task at hand for Yoon is to build rapport with Biden during their upcoming summit where deterrence against the North is likely to figure prominently in their agenda.

Aside from the North Korean conundrum, Yoon and Biden are expected to discuss another key issue -- how to reinforce their security-centric partnership into what Yoon advocated for during his election campaign: a "comprehensive" strategic alliance.

The envisioned broad-based alliance is expected to encompass many areas of bilateral cooperation, including supply chains, technologies and the promotion of their shared values, like human rights, observers said.

But the talk of broadening the alliance may come with the Yoon administration's strategic calculus about its relations with China, South Korea's key partner for trade, tourism and the promotion of peace with North Korea.

"A hardening zero-sum rivalry between the U.S. and China has been increasingly calling for South Korea to make a choice with the major powers being the axis of (South Korea's) security and economy," Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University, said.

"Though Yoon has hinted at a focus on cementing the alliance with the U.S., a key question is how to strike the right balance between the two major powers," he added.

One issue that could risk friction with China is Yoon's campaign pledge for the deployment of additional U.S.-made THAAD anti-missile units, which China argues would undermine its security interests.

Yoon's aides, like his Foreign Minister nominee Park Jin, have recently shown a cautious stance on the THAAD issue -- a move that analysts said reflected their realization of the gap between governing and campaigning.

Yoon also faces the daunting task of mending fences with Japan, as Seoul-Tokyo ties were strained notably under the liberal Moon Jae-in administration.

Over the last five years, Seoul and Tokyo have been embroiled in long-simmering rows over Japan's wartime sexual slavery and forced labor.

Those issues have remained unresolved as Tokyo claims they were issues already addressed under past bilateral agreements despite victims' calls for its sincere atonement and sufficient legal compensation for the misdeeds.

Kindling a mood of cautious optimism, however, Yoon has stressed his desire to develop a "future-oriented" relationship with Japan and uphold the spirit of a 1998 statement between then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and then Japanese Premier Keizo Obuchi.

The declaration paved the way for closer cooperation between the two countries at that time, as Obuchi expressed "keen remorse" and apologized for "great damage and pain" that Japan inflicted on Koreans during its colonial rule.

sshluck@yna.co.kr
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