South Korean President-elect Yoon unveils his foreign policy goals

SEOUL — In recent years, South Korea has been a passive player on the world stage even as its economic and cultural influence soared, wary of aggressive neighbors North Korea and China.

The country’s new conservative president promises to change that. South Korea must step up its foreign policy according to its economic and cultural status and become a stronger ally of the United States, he told the Washington Post in his first interview as president-elect.

“We should not only focus on relations with North Korea, but rather expand the scope of diplomacy in the EU and throughout Asia with the South Korea-US relationship as the basis,” Yoon Suk-yeol said Thursday. “We should take on a bigger role in fulfilling our responsibility as one of the top 10 economies in the world.”

Transcript of Washington Post interview with South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol

Yoon joins a growing group of leaders across the Asia-Pacific region who are abandoning conciliatory stances to defend their country and tightening alliances to counter China. He aspires to make South Korea a key player in tackling global challenges – including supply chain management, climate change and vaccine production – by moving away from a single focus on Korea. of the North and calibrating the policy around it.

The question is how effective it can be for this purpose. On May 10, Yoon is set to become the president of the world’s 10th largest economy, although he has no experience in politics or governance and was elected last month with the narrowest margin in the world. democratic history of the country. He faces the ordeal of winning over the opposition-controlled parliament and a divided nation weary of income inequality, soaring property prices and empty promises of hope.

At the heart of Yoon’s foreign policy is “rebuilding” South Korea’s alliance with the United States, a nod to Washington’s frustrations with the outgoing government of President Moon Jae- in, whose foreign policy ambition to broker peace with North Korea has made him wary of jeopardizing relations with North Korea. China and Russia, allies of North Korea.

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Yoon’s pledges have been welcomed by Washington, according to US analysts, noting that the United States wants a stronger South Korea that is a reliable ally to help build democratic unity in the region.

Yoon, 61, is a first-time politician and former attorney general. The son of academics, Yoon graduated from the prestigious Seoul National University and became a prosecutor in 1994 after passing the bar exam on his ninth attempt. He has faced off against some of South Korea’s most powerful people, including helping convict President Park Geun-hye during her impeachment trial.

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Yoon lights up when he talks about eating and cooking. On South Korean talk shows, he showed off his culinary skills, deftly testing the heat of a stainless steel pan with a drop of water and laying down dishes with precision. Among his favorite dishes to cook are kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew), bulgogi (marinated beef), spaghetti and mushroom soup, he said.

“I believe it is very important and meaningful in life to spend quality time around meals with friends, family and other people close to us,” he said.

Yoon first married at age 51 and has four dogs and three cats. He has no children.

Asked about his role models as president, he said he admires Abraham Lincoln’s legacy as an advocate of federalism and the charm and civil rights legacy of John F. Kennedy. He said footage of Kennedy taking full responsibility for the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in a black-and-white documentary he watched in high school left a lasting impression.

Seoul as a “Global Hub State”

Yoon sees South Korea as a “global pivot state,” his take on a long-held vision among South Korean conservatives to frame the country’s foreign policy on its own terms rather than as a response to North Korea.

This means South Korea needs to shoulder more responsibilities, including providing more overseas development assistance, he said.

He cited as an example that South Korea has committed $10 million in aid to Ukraine, which equates to about 20 cents per Ukrainian, an amount he considers insufficient. He said he asked his team to assess how Seoul could increase aid to Ukraine.

“We should participate in the international pressure campaign on Russia, which the current government is doing to some extent,” Yoon said. “When the international community asks us to participate more, we must firmly demonstrate our attitude of respect for the rules-based international order.”

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Yoon said South Korea should rely on its military alliance with the United States to take a stronger political stance on China, and he does not consider South Korea’s economic dependence on China. -Vis China as a one-way street. China remains South Korea’s biggest trading partner, but he said Seoul must recognize that Beijing also depends on it.

Before deciding whether he wants to join the “Quad”, a grouping of the United States, Japan, Australia and India designed to counter the rise of China, Yoon said that Korea of the South would support and cooperate with its working groups to solve global problems such as the distribution of vaccines. and climate change.

Yoon called North Korea a “main enemy” of Seoul, a stance that departs from that of his predecessor, who leaves a legacy of nuclear negotiations between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump. Yoon expressed concern over North Korea’s lifting of its self-imposed moratorium on long-range missiles and nuclear testing, but said he would maintain a two-pronged response to continue dialogue and offer humanitarian aid.

“Whatever the circumstances, we are of the same breed,” Yoon said.

Cooperation with the United States and Japan

Relations between Japan and South Korea are again at one of their lowest levels in decades, a concern for the Biden administration as it seeks to work with its two main Asian allies to counter domination. of China’s supply chain and North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.

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Yoon said the dismal relationship between Seoul and Tokyo has backfired on South Korean businesses and ordinary South Koreans who like to travel to Japan, and hampered Seoul’s ability to coordinate with Tokyo and Washington.

Yoon said South Korea should strive to restore trust by having frequent conversations and visits with Japanese officials. Japanese officials greeted Yoon’s position with caution.

“Our weakened relationship with Japan is the Achilles’ heel of South Korea-US-Japan cooperation,” he said. “When I’m president, South Korea-Japan relations will be fine. I’m sure of that.”

One of the defining issues of the presidential campaign was gender, with Yoon’s campaign and party attracting disgruntled young men who are frustrated with Moon administration policies that encourage women to enter and stay in the labor market. work.

Yoon proposed scrapping the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which has become a flashpoint in the gender war. For now, that decision appears to be on hold, as Yoon has appointed a new head of the agency.

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Yoon acknowledged South Korea’s poor rankings on gender, regularly ranking last or second-to-last on a range of measures on women’s economic and political empowerment, and he said South Korea needed to improve its ranking on world standards for women.

But he said there had been progress over the decades. When asked what role his administration would play in closing the gender gap, he said the government must guarantee the legal rights of both sexes in unjust and criminal circumstances.

“I have a clear principle that we must conform to global standards for social and governmental activities,” he said. “Ensuring opportunities for women must also be in line with global standards. »

Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.

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