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South Korea's new President Yoon Suk Yeol waves from a car after the Presidential Inauguration outside the National Assembly in Seoul, on May 10, 2022. Image Credit: AP

Seoul: Yoon Suk Yeol, a conservative political neophyte, took office on Tuesday as South Korea’s new president with a vow to pursue a negotiated settlement of North Korea’s threatening nuclear program and an offer of “an audacious plan’’ to improve Pyongyang’s economy if it abandons its nuclear weapons.

Yoon’s starts his single five-year term during one of the most challenging situations of any recent new president, facing a mix of significant security, economic and social problems that beset the world’s 10th largest economy. There’s widespread skepticism that an increasingly belligerent North Korea will give his offers much consideration, and South Korea’s deep political and social divides, as well as a growing worry about the state of a pandemic-hit economy, are reflected in a recent poll: Yoon faces lower popularity numbers than the departing liberal president, Moon Jae-in.

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Yoon taking the oath on Tuesday. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Yoon had promised a tougher stance on North Korea during his campaign, but he avoided a tough stance during his inaugural speech amid growing worries that the North is preparing for its first nuclear bomb test in nearly five years. North Korea has rejected similar past overtures by some of Yoon’s predecessors that link incentives to progress in its denuclearization.

“While North Korea’s nuclear weapon programs are a threat, not only to our security but also to Northeast Asia, the door to dialogue will remain open so that we can peacefully resolve this threat,’’ Yoon told a crowd gathered outside parliament in Seoul.

“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.

Yoon also addressed South Korea’s growing economic problems, saying decaying job markets and a widening rich-poor gap are brewing a democratic crisis by stoking “internal strife and discord’’ and fueling a spread of “anti-intellectualism’’ as people lose their sense of community and belonging.

He said he would spur economic growth to heal the deep political divide and income equalities.

North Korea’s advancing nuclear programme is a vexing security challenge for Yoon, who won the March 9 election on a promise to strengthen South Korea’s 70-year military alliance with the United States and build up its own missile capability to neutralize North Korean threats.

In recent months, North Korea has test-launched a spate of nuclear-capable missiles that could target South Korea, Japan and the mainland United States. Pyongyang appears to be trying to rattle Yoon’s government while modernizing its weapons arsenals and pressuring the Biden administration into relaxing sanctions. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently warned that his nuclear weapons won’t be confined to their primary mission of deterring war if Kim’s national interests are threatened.

Very grave situation

In a policy briefing earlier on Tuesday, South Korea’s military chief Won In-Choul told Yoon that North Korea can conduct a nuclear test soon if Kim decides to do so. Yoon then ordered military commanders to maintain firm readiness, saying that “the security situation on the Korean Peninsula is very grave.’’

Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at the private Sejong Institute said there’s little chance North Korea will accept Yoon’s conditional support plan because the North believes South Korea must first abandon its hostile policies, by which it means regular military drills with the United States, before talks can resume.

Yoon must also deal with a destabilising US-China rivalry and history disputes with Japan. South Korea is also bracing for the fallout of Russia’s war on Ukraine in global energy markets.

South Korea must accept that it cannot force North Korea to denuclearise or ease the US-China standoff, according to Chung Jin-young, a professor at Kyung Hee University. He said South Korea must instead focus on strengthening its defence capability and boosting the US alliance to “make North Korea never dare think about a nuclear attack on us.’’ He said South Korea must also prevent ties with Beijing from worsening.

Yoon didn’t mention Japan during his speech. During his campaign, Yoon repeatedly accused his liberal predecessor Moon of exploiting Japan for domestic politics and stressed Tokyo’s strategic importance. But some experts say Yoon could end up in the same policy rut as Moon, considering the countries’ deep disagreements over sensitive history issues such as Tokyo’s wartime mobilization of Korean laborers and sex slaves.

Some of Yoon’s major domestic policies may face an impasse in parliament, which will remain controlled by liberal lawmakers ahead of general elections in 2024. Yoon must also rebuild South Korea’s pandemic response, shaken by a massive omicron surge in recent months.