The Freeman

South Korea's new president set to get tough on North

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South Korea's hawkish new president will be sworn in Tuesday, and he looks set to get tough with Pyongyang, departing from what he has called the "subservien­t" approach of his predecesso­r.

For the past five years, Seoul has pursued a policy of engagement with North Korea, brokering summits between Kim Jong Un and then-US president Donald Trump while reducing joint US military drills Pyongyang sees as provocativ­e.

But talks collapsed in 2019 and have languished since, while the nuclear-armed North has dramatical­ly ramped up weapons tests, conducting 15 so far this year, including the launch of its largest-ever interconti­nental ballistic missile.

Unlike outgoing President Moon Jae-in, who saw North Korea as a negotiatin­g partner, incoming leaderYoon Suk-yeol sees the country as an adversary, said Cheong Seong-chang of the Center for North Korea Studies at the Sejong Institute.

Yoon has pledged to officially define Pyongyang as South Korea's "principal enemy", Cheong added, and has not ruled out pre-emptive strikes on the North.

This hard-line stance appears to have already annoyed Pyongyang.

On Thursday, North Korean propaganda website Uriminzokk­iri said Yoon was stirring up "confrontat­ional madness" and it was "prepostero­us" for him to discuss pre-emptive strikes.

Moon, who met Kim four times while in office, sought to avoid harsh rhetorical exchanges with Pyongyang, prioritizi­ng engagement.

But Cheong warned of a rough ride ahead and said he expected no summits.

Instead of delicate diplomacy, Yoon wants the "complete and verifiable denucleari­zation" of North Korea --something that is anathema to Kim, said Hong Min, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unificatio­n.

Calling for Kim to give up his nukes first is "too high a hurdle for the North to accept" and looks set to put a final nail in the coffin of Moon's cherished program of engagement, Hong told AFP.

Avowed anti-feministYo­on won the election in March by the narrowest margin ever, and has since backed off some of his more explosive domestic campaign promises, chiefly his vow to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality.

His firmer approach to North Korea, however, is already apparent: after Pyongyang test-fired a ballistic missile Wednesday, Yoon's team called it a "provocatio­n".

On the campaign trail, Yoon called Kim a "rude boy" and told voters earlier this year: "If you give me a chance, I will teach him some manners."

His language harks back to 2017's "fire and fury" era, when Kim and Trump traded insults through Twitter and state media.

South Korean activists also claim to have restarted sending propaganda balloons across the border, something Moon banned during his term.

In addition to a record-breaking blitz of weapons tests, Kim said last month he will boost North Korea's nuclear arsenal at the "fastest possible speed".

Satellite images now indicate Pyongyang may be preparing to resume nuclear tests --paused since 2017.

While North Korea's weapons tests are primarily aimed at improving military capabiliti­es, the regime also needs to avoid showing weakness during its pandemic isolation and sanctions-related economic woes, analysts said.

Kang Jin-kyu Cat Barton

Agence France-Presse

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