Yoon’s victory in South Korean election signals hawkish shift in North Korea policy

The new president will try to bring Seoul and Washington closer together, analysts say.
By Albert Hong, So Young Kim, and Sangmin Lee
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Yoon’s victory in South Korean election signals hawkish shift in North Korea policy Yoon Suk Yeol, the presidential candidate of the main opposition People Power Party, who was elected South Korea's new president on Wednesday, holds bouquets as he is congratulated by party's members and lawmakers at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, March 10, 2022.

The election of conservative Yoon Suk-yeol as South Korea’s next president Wednesday is likely to bring more hawkish policies toward North Korea and less deference toward China, analysts told RFA.

Yoon, representing the main opposition People Power Party, won with 48.6 percent of the vote, edging out the ruling Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-myung by a margin of only 0.8 percent.  The 20th presidential election was the closest in the history of South Korea, a U.S. ally and leading Asian democracy.

The election was largely seen as a referendum on the policies of current term-limited president Moon Jae-in, and turned on domestic issues such as housing costs and job creation.

On North Korea, an issue always lurking in the background of South Korea’s vibrant democracy, Yoon will likely be far more hawkish than his predecessor, analysts say.

The Moon administration was very eager to engage with Pyongyang, with the president in 2018 even meeting personally with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in three inter-Korean summits, and a trilateral summit with Kim and then-U.S. President Donald Trump in 2019.

Moon also pushed for an official end of the Korean War to replace the current armistice agreement that ended hostilities in 1953, and he toned down joint military exercises with the U.S. in hopes of coaxing North Korea to the denuclearization negotiating table.

President-elect Yoon, who has never held political office and takes power in May, will likely step-up the frequency of the joint exercises, the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) said in a report Wednesday.

“Yoon will not press for an end-of-war declaration before denuclearization advances and will respond more decisively to North Korean provocations,” CSIS said.

“He will expand defense and deterrence capabilities in conjunction with the U.S. alliance, including offensive strike capabilities and enhanced missile defense.”

The White House congratulated Yoon in his victory, telling RFA’s Korean Service that the alliance between Washington and Seoul was “ironclad.”

“President Biden looks forward to continue working with the new President-elect to further expand our close cooperation,” a White House spokesperson said. 

National Election Commission officials sort out ballots for counting in the presidential election in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. Photo: AP

In sync with Seoul

With the ROK election of Yoon Suk-yeol, the focus will be on ensuring that U.S.-ROK allied relations are totally in sync, especially as it relates to North Korea and the goal of complete, verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Joseph Detrani, the former U.S. Special Envoy for the Six Party Talks with North Korea, told RFA

Detrani said that the two countries’ militaries would also need a strong relationship, suggesting that the two sides would discuss the possibility of South Korea joining the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), a strategic security dialogue among the Indo-Pcific democracies.

He said Seoul and Washington would likely discuss “the advisability of enhancing the missile defense system in the ROK, given North Korea's eleven missile launches in 2022 and indications that Pyongyang may resume nuclear tests and long-range ballistic missile launches.”

A Yoon presidency would lead to improved coordination between South Korea and the U.S. in their alliance and on North Korea strategy, Bruce Klingner of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation told RFA.

“His advocacy for reciprocal engagement with Pyongyang, in which the regime must take steps toward denuclearization prior to receiving benefits, as well as his resistance to showboat summits are the same positions as those of the Biden administration,” said Klingner.

Yoon will go further than Moon on “improving relations with Japan, as well as South Korea assuming a larger regional security role. However, progress on both issues will be difficult, due to contentious historic issues for the former and Seoul's reluctance to antagonize China for the later,” he said.

Yoon “is likely to take a less deferential policy stance toward Beijing than the previous administration in part due to a recognition of Chinese bullying tactics and a lack of confidence that China can deliver North Korea,” said the CSIS analysis.

With Washington and Seoul working closer together, though, the scope of their coordination will extend beyond immediate defense and North Korea issues, Soo Kim, a policy analyst at the California-based RAND Corporation told RFA.

“This, by extension, could help the allies work together on other broader challenges, including China,” she said.

“In light of ongoing geopolitical challenges and contingencies, this new administration might be welcomed by the Biden Administration,” said Kim.

Speaking before the result in Wednesday’s election was determined, the Brookings Institution’s Patricia Kim told RFA that regardless of who wins, the geopolitical climate will be challenging.

 “Pyongyang has shown a complete lack of interest in coming to the negotiating table and has doubled down on its determination to advance its military capabilities citing ‘hostility’ from the outside world. It’s unclear what offers a new South Korean administration could provide to induce North Korea to the negotiating table,” said Patricia Kim.

She also said that Washington and Beijing need to cooperate with each other to advance peace on the Korean peninsula.

“But the chances for such coordination have been low due to escalating U.S.-China tensions, and have become even more remote due to China’s unwillingness to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its doubling down on its strategic alignment with Russia,” she said.

“In short, the new South Korean president faces an uphill battle on managing South Korea’s geopolitical challenges, especially on the key objectives of advancing peace on the Korean Peninsula and maintaining good relations with the major players in Asia,” said Patricia Kim.

A voter wearing a plastic glove as a precaution against the coronavirus, casts a ballot for the presidential election at a local polling station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. Photo: AP

Emphasis on rights

Two North Korean human rights advocacy organizations told RFA that they support the change from Moon to Yoon, citing the former’s reluctance to bringing up the rights situation in dialogue.

“This regime change was what all North Korean refugees had hoped for,” Park Jihyun, the co-director of Stepping Stones, a U.K.-based advocacy group, told RFA.

“I don’t know whether the new regime will place North Korean human rights issues at a high priority, unlike the past five years, but I would like to see them develop things differently from the Moon Jae-in administration,” ,” said Park, who escaped from North Korea herself prior to resettling in the U.K.

The past five years have been difficult for people and organizations interested in improving North Korean human rights, Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), told RFA.

“It can be seen that the human rights issue was sacrificed to appease the Kim Jong Un regime,” he said. “Now, I think this situation can change in a positive direction.” 

South Korea should focus on the people of North Korea rather than trying to make overtures to its government, Kim Doo-hyun, who settled in South Korea in 2009 after escaping North Korea, then moved to the U.S. four years ago to pursue educational goals.

“I hope the new president implements a North Korean policy that focuses on the North Korean people, rather than on Kim Jong Un and his regime,” said Kim Doo-hyun. 

“I, as a North Korean defector, expected that President Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer, would have a lot of interest in North Korean human rights, but I was disappointed that he did not.”

Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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