S. Korea’s president-elect wants tougher stance on N. Korea

South Korea’s president-elect Yoon Suk Yeol said Thursday he would solidify an alliance with the United States, build up a powerful military and sternly cope with North Korean provocations, hours after he won the country’s hard-fought election to become its next leader.

Yoon, whose single five-year term is to begin in May, said during his campaigning he would make a boosted alliance with the United States the center of his foreign policy. He’s accused outgoing liberal President Moon Jae-in of tilting toward Pyongyang and Beijing and away from Washington. He’s also stressed the need to recognize the strategic importance of repairing ties with Tokyo despite recent bilateral historical disputes.

Some experts say a Yoon government will likely be able to reinforce ties with Washington and improve relations with Tokyo but can’t really avoid frictions with Pyongyang and Beijing.

“I’ll rebuild the South Korea-U.S. alliance. I’ll (make) it a strategic comprehensive alliance while sharing key values like a liberal democracy, a market economy and human rights,” Yoon told a televised news conference.

“I’ll establish a strong military capacity to deter any provocation completely and protect the people’s safety and property and our territory and sovereignty,” Yoon said. “I’ll firmly deal with illicit, unreasonable behavior by North Korea in a principled manner, though I’ll always leave door for South-North talks open.”

After his election win, he spoke with U.S. President Joe Biden on the phone. According to a White House statement, Biden congratulated Yoon on the election and emphasized the U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea. The statement said the two also committed to maintain close coordination on addressing the threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

North Korea hasn’t made any comments on Yoon’s election. In recent weeks, it’s launched a spate of sophisticated, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in what experts call an attempt to modernize its weapons arsenal and pressure the Biden administration to making concessions like sanctions relief.

Moon, the departing South Korean president, has pushed hard to broker denuclearization deals between Pyongyang and Washington and once helped arrange a summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and then-U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018. But the U.S.-North Korea diplomacy eventually collapsed due to disputes over U.S.-led sanctions on the North.

On Japan, Yoon said that Seoul and Tokyo should focus on building future-oriented ties. The two countries are both key U.S. allies and closely linked to each other economically and culturally, but their relations sank to post-war lows during Moon’s presidency over disputes related to Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.

“The focus in South Korea-Japan relations should be finding future paths that would benefit the people of both countries,” Yoon said. “During this process of future-focused cooperation, we also need to come together and discuss, find the truths and resolve issues related to the past.”

Yoon, who ran on the ticket of the main opposition People Power Party, had previously served as Moon’s prosecutor general. But he left the Moon government and joined the opposition last year after high-profile infighting over his investigations on some of Moon’s allies.

Wednesday’s election was largely a two-way showdown between Yoon and liberal ruling party candidate Lee Jae-myung. The two spent months slamming, mocking and demonizing each other in one of the most bitter political campaigns in recent memory, aggravating the country’s already severe domestic division.

Lee and his allies attacked Yoon over his lack of experience in foreign policy and other major state affairs.

They said Yoon’s hard-line stance on North Korea would unnecessarily provoke the North, and picking a side between Washington and Beijing would pose greater security threats to Seoul. Yoon has accused the Moon administration of being “submissive” to Pyongyang and Beijing at the expense of Seoul’s 70-year alliance with Washington.

Yoon’s razor-thin victory against Lee was partly seen as a referendum on the liberal government, whose popularity waned in recent years over failures to deal with stark economic inequalities, decaying job markets and soaring house prices that paint bleak financial futures for many people in their 20s and 30s.

Yoon during the campaign focused much of his message on vows to create more jobs and restore social mobility by creating a fairer, competitive environment for young people. He fiercely criticized Moon’s government over the policy failures and high-profile investment scandals surrounding Moon’s allies that he said exposed hypocrisy and disregard for law.

On domestic agendas, Yoon faces urgent tasks to suppress a record-breaking COVID-19 surge, ease widening economic inequalities and runaway house prices and heal a nation sharply split along regional antagonism, ideologies, age and gender.

Yoon was criticized during the campaign for stoking gender animosities by promising to abolish the country’s Gender Equality and Family Ministry, which he accused of pushing policies unfair toward men.

While he was apparently trying win the votes of young men who decry gender equality policies and the loss of traditional privileges in a hyper-competitive job market, exit polls released after Wednesday’s election indicated that his gains in male votes were largely canceled out by young women who swung toward Lee.

During Thursday’s conference, Yoon rejected accusations that his campaign raised gender tensions but repeated a view that the country no longer had structural barriers to women’s success.

“Regarding gender issues, laws and systems are pretty much in place now,” he said. “Instead of approaching the issue as a matter of equality and fairness between groups, I think the government should provide stronger response and protection regarding individual cases of unfairness.”

Yoon said building a better pandemic response would be a priority for his power transition committee, which will have a dedicated team designing plans to reinforce the country’s medical capacities and more effective financial packages to help devastated service sector businesses.

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