S Korea’s next leader faces escalating N Korean nuke threat

FILE - In this photo provided by South Korean President-elect office via Yonhap News Agency, South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol, second from left, speaking as Gen.  Paul LaCamera, right, commander of USFK and the South Korea-US Combined Forces Command, listens during his visit to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, on April 7, 2022. Yoon takes office as South Korea's president Tuesday, May 10 amid heightened animosities over North Korea's nuclear program.  During his election campaign, the conservative Yoon said he would teach North Korean leader Kim Jong Un some manners and sternly cope with his provocative missile tests with a strengthened alliance with the United States.  (South Korean President-elect office/Yonhap via AP, File)

FILE – In this photo provided by South Korean President-elect office via Yonhap News Agency, South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol, second from left, speaking as Gen. Paul LaCamera, right, commander of USFK and the South Korea-US Combined Forces Command, listens during his visit to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, on April 7, 2022. Yoon takes office as South Korea’s president Tuesday, May 10 amid heightened animosities over North Korea’s nuclear program. During his election campaign, the conservative Yoon said he would teach North Korean leader Kim Jong Un some manners and sternly cope with his provocative missile tests with a strengthened alliance with the United States. (South Korean President-elect office/Yonhap via AP, File)

AP

During his election campaign, South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol had tough words for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, saying he would teach his rival some manners and sternly deal with his provocative missile tests with a strengthened alliance with the United States.

But as he takes office Tuesday for a five-year term, the conservative Yoon must now confront an belligerent Kim, who openly threatens to use atomic bombs and is reportedly preparing for his first nuclear explosion test since 2017, part of an effort to build warheads that specifically target South Korea.

North Korea has a history of trying to rattle new governments in Seoul and Washington to gain leverage in future negotiations. But if Kim orders a nuclear test, Yoon would be left with very limited options to deal with Kim at the start of his presidency.

There’s skepticism among experts over whether Yoon, despite his rhetoric, can accomplish something meaningfully different from outgoing President Moon Jae-in while North Korea continues to reject talks and focuses instead on expanding its nuclear and missile programs despite limited resources and economic.

“North Korea has the initiative. Regardless of whether conservatives or liberals are in power in South Korea, North Korea is pressing ahead with (missile tests) under its own weapons development timetable before it tries to tip the balance later,” said Park Won Gon, a professor at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University. “North Korea will now continue its provocations, but there are no ways to stop it.”

Moon championed engaging North Korea and once shuttled between Pyongyang and Washington to arrange the now-stalled nuclear diplomacy. Even after North Korea urged Moon not to meddle in its dealings with Washington and insulted him, Moon still worked to improve relations and shed away from hitting back at the North.

Yoon has described Moon’s appeasement policy as “subservient” and accused him of undermining South Korea’s seven-decade military alliance with the United States. To neutralize North Korea’s nuclear threats, Yoon said he would seek a stronger US security commitment and enhance South Korea’s own missile strike capabilities, though he remains open to dialogue with the North.

During a rally before the March 9 election, as he slammed Moon for failing to strongly criticize Kim’s repeated missile tests, Yoon said that if elected, “I would teach (Kim) some manners and make him come to his senses completely.”

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