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Yoon's first response to North Korea provocations likely to determine course for next 5 years

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol / Korea Times photo
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol / Korea Times photo

By Kang Seung-woo

Amid signs of North Korea abandoning its self-restraint in regards to testing long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol's pledge to take a tougher stance and bolster South Korea's deterrence against its northern neighbor ― in close cooperation with the United States ― is likely to prolong the period of non-engagement between the two Koreas under his new administration.

Furthermore, Yoon has filled the foreign policy subcommittee of his transition team with officials from the former Lee Myung-bak government, who pursued confrontational policies that almost pushed the two Koreas to the brink of war.

With the new conservative administration to be inaugurated in May, Pyongyang is likely to test how much bandwidth the Yoon administration will allow in dealing with its provocative actions, and diplomatic observers say how the new government responds to this initial saber-rattling will set the tone for inter-Korean interactions for the next five years.

"Relations between the two Koreas once President-elect Yoon takes office will entirely depend on Pyongyang," said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a professor of international relations at King's College London.

"If North Korea goes down the test route, then I would expect the Yoon government to focus on deterrence, sanctions and denunciation of Pyongyang's human rights abuses above all. This would strain relations," he said.

Soo Kim, a former CIA analyst now with the RAND Corporation, said that the Kim Jong-un regime will renew tensions on the Korean Peninsula and watch for the response from the new South Korean government.

Traditionally, North Korea has attempted to gauge the response of new South Korean administrations with weapons demonstrations.

"Kim may seek to test the limits of the Yoon administration with provocations of varying intensity," Soo Kim said.

"So the real test lies in how the Yoon administration will respond. If there's no commensurate action to sustain the rhetoric, then this will simply underscore vulnerabilities, which Kim Jong-un is likely to take advantage of."

She added that Seoul will need to pursue measures, both unilaterally and in close coordination with allies and partners, which will curb Kim's appetite for tension and aggression.

"How the Yoon administration responds to North Korea's first set of provocations will set the course of inter-Korean interactions for the next five years," she noted.

From the start of the year, North Korea has launched missiles on 10 occasions, including one failed test Wednesday, and threatened that the country will lift its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear weapons and long-range missile tests.

Speculation is rife that the totalitarian state may launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or even detonate a nuclear bomb on the occasion of founder Kim Il-sung's birthday, which falls April 15. In January, the North said it may consider restarting "all temporarily suspended activities."

In addition, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence has predicted that North Korea could resume nuclear weapons and ICBM testing this year.

Although Yoon may adopt a hardline stance toward North Korea, a dramatic change from outgoing President Moon Jae-in's policy of reconciliation toward the North, the incoming president needs to take advantage of the Biden administration's approach to the country.

The Biden administration has urged the North Korean regime to return to negotiations, stressing that it is ready to meet the country unconditionally ― although the Kim regime has yet to respond to the repeated calls.

"I don't think that Yoon will want a repeat of the clashes of 2010 or the tensions of 2017. Thus, I think that he will leave the door open to dialogue," Pacheco Pardo said.

"Also because the Biden administration has signaled that it is open to talk with Pyongyang even before it takes steps towards denuclearization ― something that Obama did not do. Thus, Yoon has an incentive to try to work with Biden to address the North Korea nuclear issue."

Pacheco Pardo also said it would not be a bad deal for North Korea to improve ties with the conservative South Korean government.

"From Pyongyang's perspective, improving relations with South Korea during a conservative administration would make sense," he said.

"This would facilitate the survival of any inter-Korean dialogue and peace process if a liberal president takes over in South Korea later on. So Pyongyang may think that it is in its interest to try to improve relations with Seoul while Yoon is in office."

Kang Seung-woo


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