Seoul — South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, said on Tuesday that North Korea’s weapons programmes pose a threat but that he is ready to provide an “audacious” economic plan if the North is committed to denuclearisation.
Yoon gave the remarks in his inauguration speech after being sworn in at a ceremony in Seoul. He won a tight election in March as the standard bearer of the main conservative People Power party, less than a year after entering politics after a 26-year career as a prosecutor.
Yoon, 61, will face two major problems as he takes office: a belligerent North Korea testing new weapons and inflation threatening to undermine an economic recovery from two years of Covid-19 gloom.
He has signalled a tougher line on North Korea, warning of a pre-emptive strike if there is a sign of an imminent attack and vowing to strengthen the South’s deterrent capability. But his speech was seen as focused more on his willingness to reopen stalled denuclearisation talks with Pyongyang.
“While North Korea’s nuclear weapon programmes are a threat not only to our security and that of Northeast Asia, the door to dialogue will remain open so that we can peacefully resolve this threat,” Yoon said.
“If North Korea genuinely embarks on a process to complete denuclearisation, 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.
Yoon did not elaborate on his plan to re-engage or provide economic incentives to the North. But his national security adviser, Kim Sung-han, told Reuters during the election campaign that the Yoon government would devise a road map in early days in which Pyongyang could quickly earn sanctions relief or economic aid in exchange for denuclearisation measures.
Yoon could face a security crisis if North Korea carries out its first nuclear test in five years, as US and South Korean officials warned, after it broke a 2017 moratorium on long-range missile testing in March.
Yoon won the election on a platform of fighting corruption and creating a more level economic playing field amid deepening public frustration with inequality and housing prices, as well as simmering gender and generational rivalry.
South Korea’s inflation hit a more than 13-year high last month as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent commodity prices soaring, boosting expectations of more central bank interest rate rises, which could threaten growth prospects.
Yoon did not mention inflation, but cited low growth, rising unemployment and wage gaps as economic challenges, pledging to address those by focusing on developing science, technology and innovation.
He blamed anti-intellectualism for polarised politics and deepening internal strife, saying it has threatened to undercut democracy and the people’s “sense of community and belonging”.
“The political process which has the responsibility to address and resolve these issues has failed due to a crisis in democracy, and one of the main reasons for such failure is the troubling spread of anti-intellectualism,” he said.
“When we choose to see only what we want to see and hear only what we want to hear, this is what shakes our trust in democracy.”
About 40,000 people attended the ceremony on the front lawn of parliament, including about 300 foreign guests, including Chinese vice-president Wang Qishan, Japanese foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, and Douglas Emhoff, the husband of US vice-president Kamala Harris.
After the inauguration, Yoon moved to a new office at a former defence ministry building inside a sprawling compound, where he was greeted by some children living nearby before holding a meeting with aides.
He has moved the presidential office and residence from the traditional Blue House under a $40m plan, though his predecessor Moon Jae-in criticised it as rushed and a national security risk.
A separate event was held at the Blue House, where 74 citizens selected by lottery entered the long enclosed complex, which was opened to the public for the first time in 74 years.
Yoon had called the office a “symbol of absolute power”, and his team said it would be used as a public park and cultural space, and 20,000-30,000 people have signed up for a daily visit.
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