Yoon faces tough challenges as South Korea’s new president

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SEOUL, South Korea — Former chief prosecutor Yoon Suk Yeol takes office as South Korea’s president on Tuesday, facing a tougher mix of foreign policy and domestic challenges than other recent South Korean leaders. met at the start of their presidency.

Yoon’s single five-year term begins at midnight Monday before he is sworn in Tuesday morning at an official ceremony in Seoul.

Since winning the March election, Yoon, a conservative who advocates a tougher approach to North Korea, has been denied a honeymoon period. Polls show less than 60% of those polled expect him to succeed in his presidency, an unusually low figure compared to his predecessors, who mostly received around 80% to 90% before they took office. function. His approval rating as president-elect was 41%, according to a Gallup Korea survey released last week that put incumbent liberal President Moon Jae-in’s rating at 45%.

Yoon’s low popularity is partly blamed on a sharp divide between conservatives and liberals, as well as controversial policies and Cabinet choices. Some experts say Yoon, a foreign policy novice, has also failed to show a clear vision of how to navigate the world’s 10th largest economy amid challenges such as North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal, an escalating US-China rivalry and pandemic-affected livelihoods.

“Our foreign policy, our national security and our economy are all in trouble. Yoon should have presented visions, hopes or leadership to show how he can bring the public together in these difficult times. But I don’t think he showed such things,” said Professor Chung Jin-young, former dean of Kyung Hee University’s Graduate School of Pan-Pacific International Studies.

As US-led nuclear disarmament talks stall, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently threatened to use nuclear weapons against his rivals and is reportedly preparing to conduct his first nuclear test in almost five years.

The US-China confrontation poses a distinct security dilemma for South Korea as it struggles to balance Washington, its main military ally, and Beijing, its biggest trading partner.

During his campaign, Yoon accused Moon of leaning too far toward North Korea and China and distancing himself from Washington while exploiting ties with Japan, Korea’s former colonial ruler, for political gain. interior.

He vowed to abandon Moon’s appeasement policy toward North Korea, strengthen South Korea’s alliance with the United States and improve relations with Japan. Critics say Yoon’s policy will create friction with North Korea and China, though he is likely to boost trilateral security cooperation between South Korea, the United States and Japan.

Chung, the professor, said South Korea must accept that it cannot force North Korea to denuclearize or ease the US-China standoff. He said South Korea should instead focus on strengthening its defense capability and the U.S. alliance to “ensure that North Korea never dares to think of a nuclear attack on us.” He said South Korea must also prevent relations with Beijing from deteriorating.

Domestically, some of Yoon’s key policies could face a stalemate in parliament, which remains controlled by liberal lawmakers until the 2024 general election. The liberals have recently flexed their legislative muscle by passing controversial bills aimed at significantly reducing prosecutors’ investigative rights. Critics say the bills are aimed at preventing Yoon from investigating possible wrongdoing by the Moon administration.

Yoon must also rebuild South Korea’s pandemic response, rocked by a massive omicron surge in recent months. The COVID-19 crisis has hit an economy already battered by a sluggish job market and growing personal debt. Yoon also inherits Moon’s economic policy failures that critics say allowed property prices to soar and widen what is one of the worst rich-poor gaps among developed countries.

“The challenges Yoon faces at the start of his presidency are the most difficult and adverse” among South Korean presidents elected since the late 1980s, a period seen as the start of true democracy in the country after decades of dictatorship, Choi Jin said. , director of the Seoul-based Presidential Leadership Institute.

Yoon, 61, has drawn criticism – even from some of his conservative supporters – over his decision to abandon the mountainside Blue House presidential palace and immediately move his offices to the ministry compound. of Defense in the center of Seoul. Yoon said the move was to better communicate with the public, but critics wonder why he made it a priority when he has so many other pressing issues to deal with.

Some of Yoon’s Cabinet picks have been embroiled in allegations of ethical lapses and misdeeds. His health minister has been accused of using his status as head of a university hospital to help his children get into his medical school. The candidate denies the allegation.

Yoon, a novice in national party politics as well as foreign policy, was Moon’s attorney general before resigning and joining the main conservative opposition party last year following infighting with Moon’s political allies. .

Choi said Yoon has yet to establish his own strong power base within the conservative camp, one of the reasons he suffers from low approval ratings.

Some experts say U.S. President Joe Biden’s planned trip to Seoul next week is a good opportunity for Yoon to promote public confidence in his leadership, should the two leaders agree on measures that bolster national security and the economy. from South Korea.

Prospects for the start of Yoon’s presidency could also depend on the June 1 elections for mayor and governorship. If the Liberals win more local government positions while still holding a majority in parliament, “things will be really tough for Yoon,” Choi said.

Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.

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