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Yoon makes Korea-US relations a top priority

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President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, left, and US President Joe Biden, right. Yoon spoke with Biden by phone within five hours of his neck and neck victory in the presidential race on Thursday. The two talked about strengthening the bilateral alliance and working closely on North Korean affairs and Korea-US-Japan trilateral cooperation. [EPA/YONHAP]

Getting U.S.-Korea relations back on track will be a top priority, President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol said Thursday at his first press conference after the election results were released.

“We will rebuild the Korea-US alliance,” Yoon said during a press interview Thursday morning at the National Assembly. “We will strengthen our global strategic alliance by sharing the fundamental values ​​of liberal democracy, market economy and human rights.”

Yoon of the conservative People Power Party (PPP), a political rookie with an attorney general background, officially won the election on Thursday, beating Liberal Democratic Party rival Lee Jae-myung in the closest presidential race yet. day, with a margin of only 0.73% of the vote.

The rebuilding of the alliance can take different forms, including the rescaling of the Seoul-Washington military exercises, which take place regularly in March and August.

Joint training, long criticized by the North as a threat to its sovereignty, has been scaled back since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Exercises last August have been replaced by computer-simulated combined exercises, with only about 30% of the participating forces.

“Trust between the ROK and the United States has deteriorated due to the reduction in joint exercises,” Yoon said during one of his campaign speeches. “I will work on bringing the exercises back to scale.”

Yoon also emphasized pre-emptive strike capability and extensive US deterrence over South Korea, including its nuclear umbrella, to deal with military provocations from the North, which rival Lee called belligerent cries.

Pyongyang has yet to issue a statement on Yoon’s victory. Five years ago, when President Moon Jae-in was elected, he issued a statement the same day.

However, within five hours of his victory, Yoon was on the phone with US President Joe Biden.

The two spoke about North Korean missile tests, the last of which took place on February 27 and March 5 and were confirmed as part of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system, and the importance of Korea-US-Japan trilateral cooperation to deal with it, according to the PPP.

Although he is from the conservative PPP, Yoon’s views on Korea’s alliance with the United States align with the joint statement issued by the two liberal presidents of the allied nations, Moon and Biden, during their meeting at the White House last May.

“First, we will build a comprehensive strategic alliance between Korea and the United States,” Yoon said at his first press conference after winning the PPP presidential primary in November. “We will join in global solidarity for liberal democracy, lay the foundation for peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. […] We will seek to cooperate in the new cutting-edge knowledge industry covering new technologies, space, cyber and nuclear energy.

His declaration echoes the joint declaration which announced “a new chapter” in bilateral relations and affirmed, in addition to the commitment to the defense of South Korea and the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the commitment to new partnerships on climate, global health, emerging technologies. , supply chain resilience and civil space exploration, among others.

Yoon’s North Korean policy is also closely aligned with that of the Biden administration.

The Biden administration, four months into its administration last year, has issued a North Korean policy that will not seek big deals like the Donald Trump administration or adopt the so-called strategic patience of the Barack Obama administration.

Finding common ground between the two, the Biden administration has said it will seek a “calibrated practical approach that is open and will explore diplomacy” with the North.

So far, this approach has resulted in repeated statements from Washington through its senior officials that the option of dialogue and diplomacy is always available, if Pyongyang so wishes. But they have drawn the line when it comes to providing incentives, such as sanctions relief, for dialogue to take place.

Yoon did the same.

While rival Lee said he would offer sanctions relief provided Pyongyang pursues appropriate denuclearization efforts, Yoon rejected the idea of ​​offering the inducement first.

In his interview with the JoongAng Ilbo last month, Yoon said he would only consider easing sanctions against the North after the regime opens its door to an international in-person inspection, which will not happen. is not produced since officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency were expelled in 2009. .

“We will deal with North Korea’s illegal and unreasonable behavior decisively according to principle, but we will always keep the door open for inter-Korean dialogue,” Yoon said at Thursday’s press conference.

Yoon’s hawkish security policy is not an anomaly among the country’s conservative presidents.

Its policy on the Korea-US-Japan trilateral relationship, on the other hand, differs far more from that of previous conservative governments.

During his campaigns, Yoon did not rule out the idea of ​​elevating the current trilateral ties to a military alliance, much like the one between the United States and Korea.

The Korea-US military alliance dates back to the years of the Korean War (1950-1953), after which the two countries signed a mutual defense treaty, providing the legal basis for US Forces Korea (USFK) and the United Nations Command are stationed in the country. Korea has one of the largest US forces in the region, second only to Japan.

Other presidential candidates, including Lee and Sim Sang-jung of the Justice Party, have been reluctant to allow Japan a say in security decisions regarding the peninsula, given the history of the Japanese annexation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. But when Yoon was asked the question during a televised debate on February 25, he did not deny the possibility.

“There is no need to promise China that such an alliance will never happen,” Yoon said during the debate. “In the event of a security emergency in the country, we could consider the possibility [of having Japan step in to defend Korea.]”

The Moon administration had promised China not to enter into such a trilateral military alliance, in addition to pledging not to carry out additional deployments of the Washington-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) anti-missile system in Korea and to participate in a US Missile Defense Network – aptly dubbed the “three noes” pledges.

Yoon is open to exploring all of these options.

“We need to consider the best options for our national security, and that should include the Thaad system and deeper military cooperation with Japan and the United States,” Yoon said in a meeting with international press last year. last November 12.

Thaad deeply rocked Korea-China relations after it was launched in Korea in 2017. Beijing protested the system as a US plan to spy on China, a claim denied by Washington and Seoul, and banned content for years. Korean culture and prohibits tourists from visiting Korea.

What could further agitate China, if Yoon keeps his campaign promises, is a possible alliance with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), an Indo-Pacific alliance between the United States, Australia, Japan and India. . Beijing has criticized the Quad as a plan to contain China’s rise in the region.

“We will pursue open cooperation with a Quad task force on vaccinations, climate change and emerging technologies,” Yoon said during his speech at PPP headquarters in Seoul on Jan. 24.

Beijing is not ignoring Yoon’s ideas.

“The declaration of ‘three no’s is the result of mutual respect between China and South Korea,” read an editorial published Thursday by the Global Times, a pro-China newspaper in Beijing. “It has brought bilateral relations back from the freezing point to normal. […] The Thaad system exceeded South Korea’s defense needs and seriously compromised China’s strategic security interests.

“South Korea should not view Thaad’s deployment as an internal or sovereign issue,” he said. “It’s basically a wedge that the United States wants to nail down in Northeast Asia.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated Yoon in a letter delivered to him on Friday by Chinese Ambassador to Korea Xing Haiming.

Yoon spoke on the phone with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Friday.

In addition to emphasizing Korea-US-Japan coordination to address peace and stability in the region, Kishida expressed his expectation that Yoon’s leadership will help guide bilateral cooperation to be “base-based of our friendly and cooperative relationship that has been built since the normalization of our diplomatic relations in 1965,” according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

Yoon in return expressed his intention to work to improve bilateral relations and cooperate closely with Japan to resolve North Korean issues, according to the ministry.

During the February 25 debate, Yoon said that if elected, he would like to meet President Biden first, then Prime Minister Kishida, then President Xi Jinping.

Yoon criticized the Moon government for allowing relations with Japan to sink to an all-time low, and said he would strive to improve relations with its neighbor with a “future-oriented” perspective.

Ongoing diplomatic irritants between Korea and Japan include the issue of compensation for Korean victims of wartime forced labor and sex slavery in Japan. After local Korean courts ruled in favor of the victims in 2018, Japan imposed export restrictions on Korea targeting its semiconductor industry. At the time, Seoul was considering whether to end its military intelligence sharing pact with Tokyo, also known as the General Military Information Security (Gsomia) agreement.

The last Korea-Japan summit took place in December 2019 when Moon met with then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China. Moon spoke briefly with Abe’s successor, Yoshihide Suga, on the sidelines of the Group of Seven summit in June 2021, but it was not an official summit.

BY ESTHER CHUNG [[email protected]]