The Japan Times
Yoon takes office vowing larger role for S. Korea
Support for global norms could put new president on collision course with Beijing
New South Korean President Yoon Sukyeol used his inauguration speech Tuesday to advocate for his country playing a larger role in the system of liberal democracies, deploying language similar to that used by Washington when it set out its vision for the Indo-Pacific region.
The pledge could put him on a collision course with China as Beijing’s rivalry with Washington heats up and Yoon looks to cement security ties with South Korea’s ally the United States.
“It is incumbent upon us to take on a greater role befitting our stature as a global leader,” said Yoon, 61, before an estimated crowd of 41,000 in Seoul that included foreign dignitaries such as Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and U.S. second gentleman Douglas Emhoff.
“We must actively protect and promote universal values and international norms that are based on freedom and respect for human rights,” he added. “We must take on an even greater role in expanding freedom and human rights not just for ourselves but also for others. The international community expects us to do so. We must answer that call.”
Although Yoon did not mention China or Russia in his speech, he did zero in on the importance of the international rules-based order, mentioning the word “freedom” 30 times, according to an English-language transcript.
As the Sino-U.S. rivalry has gained steam, Washington has pushed for Seoul to sign on to its initiatives in the region, including its free and open Indo-Pacific strategy. Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in, had been reluctant to do so out of fear of alienating China, the country’s powerful neighbor and top trading partner.
In an apparent attempt to head off such a development, China dispatched Vice President Wang Qishan, a close confidant of President Xi Jinping, to attend the ceremony as the Chinese leader’s “special representative.” Media reports said Wang was one of the highest-ranking Chinese officials ever to attend a South Korean presidential inauguration.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said that Yoon’s frequent mentions of freedom were intended to link his domestic and foreign policies.
“He pledged that the values of human rights, economic opportunity and rule of law that make a country successful domestically should also be defended and supported internationally,” Easley said. “In practice, that means more cooperation with Washington, Tokyo and international institutions, and a greater emphasis on reciprocity and accountability in dealing with China and North Korea.”
This could result in South Korea being caught in the middle of tensions between China and the U.S., according to some observers.
“South Korea’s ties with China may face some challenges in the coming months and years, because naturally, South Korea wants to fully align itself with the American IndoPacific strategy, with ‘the Quad’ and ‘Quadplus’ initiatives,” said Shawn Ho, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
The Quad, which groups four Indo-Pacific democracies — Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. — has been criticized by Beijing as akin to an Asian NATO. The Quad-plus, meanwhile, has been seen as a broader network that includes other like-minded nations such as South Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand.
“China will see these as initiatives to contain China, and South Korea would be seen as belonging very, very clearly to that camp, so that will create some negative reaction from the Chinese side,” added Ho, an expert on Korean Peninsula politics and security.
But beyond the challenge of balancing ties with the U.S. and China, Yoon will also have to face down a number of other pressing issues, including repairing soured relations with Japan and tackling North Korea’s ramped-up missile tests and nuclear saber-rattling.
In a first step toward repairing ties with Japan, the new South Korean leader later in the day met with Hayashi, the top Japanese diplomat, who handed Yoon a personal letter from Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
Asked about the contents of the letter and specific measures that could help warm the chilly ties, Hayashi refrained from offering details, but noted that Yoon had conveyed to him “that he attaches great importance to the Japan-South Korea relationship and that he would like to improve relations through close communication in the future,” including a meeting with Kishida.
“The South Korean side has shown a strong desire not to let relations deteriorate further,” Hayashi said, adding that he hoped to continue to meet with Park Jin, Yoon’s nominee for foreign minister, who he held talks with a day earlier.
Still, Hayashi said he had stressed to Yoon the need to improve relations based on the 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral ties, noting that resolving the issue of wartime labor, among other concerns, was crucial to this goal.
Hayashi’s two-day visit was the first by a Japanese foreign minister to South Korea since 2018.
Expectations have been rising in Japan that ties with South Korea under Yoon could see an improvement, including in the realm of trilateral security cooperation with the United States on the North Korean nuclear issue.
“Healthy Japan-South Korea relations are essential in realizing a rules-based international order and securing peace, stability and prosperity of the region and the world,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said during a regular news conference Tuesday in Tokyo.
However, although Yoon and Kishida have already stressed aligning views in terms of responding firmly to the North Korean threat, it’s unclear if they will be able to overcome significant obstacles that pose far more serious challenges to the relationship, including festering wartime history and trade issues.
Seoul had hoped Kishida would attend the inauguration ceremony, but the administration ultimately decided it would not be possible without first receiving a guarantee of progress on the two sides’ outstanding disputes, Kyodo News reported, citing Japanese government sources.
On the North Korean issue, Yoon called for Pyongyang’s “complete denuclearization,” labeling its increasingly sophisticated weapons a threat not only to the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia but to the globe as well.
While that stuck largely to the hawkish stance Yoon maintained in the run-up to his inauguration, he also said that “the door to dialogue will remain open so that we can peacefully resolve this threat,” offering up economic aid to the North — but only on the condition that it first give up its nuclear arsenal.
“If North Korea genuinely embarks on a process to complete denuclearization, we are prepared to work with the international community to present an audacious plan that will vastly strengthen North Korea’s economy and improve the quality of life for its people,” he said without giving details of the proposal.
Experts, however, say leader Kim Jong Un is extremely unlikely to relinquish his “treasured nuclear sword,” which the North
Korean strongman sees as crucial to ensuring his regime’s survival.
Yoon is widely expected to take a tougher line with North Korea than his predecessor, who had championed engagement with Pyongyang. The new president got off to a quick start, beginning Tuesday by working from an underground bunker where he received a security briefing on North Korea.
Pyongyang has unleashed a record-breaking streak of missile launches this year, conducting 15 weapons tests since January, including two firings last week. U.S., Japanese and South Korean officials have also said that the North could complete preparations to conduct its seventh nuclear test — and first since 2017 — by the end of this month.
Fears are growing that the nuclear test could come as U.S. President Joe Biden makes his first trip to Asia since taking office in January 2021. Biden is scheduled to visit South Korea and Japan from May 20 to 24, holding bilateral talks with Yoon and Kishida in their respective captials followed by a meeting of Quad leaders in Tokyo.