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Foreign policy recommendations for Yoon

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By Shim Jae-yun

In my column titled, "Can Yoon become Korea's Macron?" for May 27 of last year, I pointed out some similarities between the two leaders, such as their political inexperience and maverick characters in defiance of the political establishment. As Yoon has become the head of state against all odds, expectations are growing for him to inject fresh air into leading Korea in the right direction for the better.

Despite some upbeat expectations, however, President-elect Yoon is bracing for a plethora of daunting challenges ahead in carrying out his duty as the new president beginning May 10. Most of all, he needs to unite the nation and repair the extreme sense of division, which deepened during the campaign, marred by negative character attacks between the leading candidates. Yoon beat his rival, Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), by only 0.73 of a percentage point. He now faces staunch resistance from the majority party with 172 parliamentary seats.

In addition to these weighty challenges at home, the political novice must also tackle the thorny issues of foreign affairs and security. The most imminent threat comes from North Korea, which recently fired missiles in apparent preparation for launching intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICMBs) and even nuclear weapons. On Friday, the Biden administration made this assessment, saying that the North is developing its ICBM capabilities. Should Pyongyang cross the line by renouncing its self-imposed moratorium, it would drive the Korean Peninsula into a vortex of extreme security uncertainty

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seems to have learned lessons from the ongoing Ukrainian crisis with regard to Ukraine's fragile security, since it gave up nuclear weapons in 1994 in return for security assurances from other countries, including Russia and the U.S. Yet, Ukraine should have listened carefully to what Sir Michael Howard, an English military historian, said, "War in itself is inescapably an evil. But those who renounce the use of force find themselves at the mercy of those who do not."

The war in Ukraine proves the significance of alliances in the case of contingency. Ukraine has not yet joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the United States and NATO member countries are reluctant to send troops there, relying mainly on economic sanctions for fear of a potential expansion of the war, possibly toward World War III.

The reality of the current situation points to the need for Yoon to reinforce the country's alliance with the U.S. and possibly with other Asia-Pacific countries, including Japan, in particular. Towards the end of the Moon Jae-in administration, the alliance between South Korea and the U.S. has ebbed to some extent, due to the Moon government's lukewarm attitude, given its interest in pursuing peace with the North and balancing with China. For starters, Seoul has been passive about conducting joint military exercises with the U.S. and joining U.S.-led regional security alliances comprising major Asia-Pacific countries.

In this vein, it is encouraging that Yoon had telephone conversations with U.S. President Joe Biden, agreeing on the need to strengthen the bilateral alliance to cope jointly with the threat from Pyongyang. Also noteworthy is Yoon's telephone call with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, agreeing to improve relations between the two countries, which have been at a low point. As they stressed in the phone conversations, Yoon should meet Biden and Kishida soon to solidify trilateral cooperative relations and rejuvenate ties.

What is worrisome is how Yoon will set up the nation's ties with China. On the one hand, Chinese media outlets reportedly showed negative reactions to Yoon getting elected, shedding light on his seemingly anti-China pledges, such as his proposed additional deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system..

Yet, on the other hand, Beijing extended the olive branch to Yoon with its leader Xi Jinping sending a congratulatory message via its envoy to Korea, Xing Haiming, expressing hope to improve bilateral ties. Xi also noted that this year marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The Moon administration has been taking flak for sitting on the fence with regards to China. Yoon should not repeat such a policy. He needs to employ policies that are square and straightforward. Instead of adopting "strategic ambiguity," Yoon should employ "strategic clarity." Yoon should not attempt to appease the North Korean leader as Moon did, in the name of pursuing the peace process on the Korean Peninsula. Besides inter-Korean cooperation, international rules should sometimes be applied to curb North Korea's possible military provocations.

Despite such new and different approaches toward North Korea, the previous agreements reached by the South, the North and the U.S. should be respected, as they can be the basis for future efforts toward enhancing detente and peace on the peninsula.

The author ( is an editorial writer of The Korea Times.

Shim Jae-yun

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