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South Korea’s new president says North poses threats but door open for talks

Yoon Suk-yeol said at his inauguration he had an “audacious” plan to strengthen North Korea’s economy if it commits to denuclearization.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol Inauguration
Yoon Suk-yeol, the new president of South Korea, at his inauguration in Seoul on Tuesday.Bloomberg / Bloomberg via Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, said on Tuesday that North Korea’s weapons programs pose a threat but that he is ready to provide an “audacious” economic plan if the North is committed to denuclearization.

Yoon gave the remarks in his inauguration speech after being sworn in at a ceremony in Seoul, the South Korean capital. He won a tight election in March as the standard bearer of the main conservative People Power Party, less than a year after entering politics following a 26-year career as a prosecutor. 

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Yoon, 61, will face two major problems as he takes office: a belligerent North Korea testing new weapons and inflation threatening to undermine an economic recovery from two years of Covid-19 gloom.

He has signaled a tougher line on North Korea, warning of a preemptive strike if there is a sign of an imminent attack and vowing to strengthen the South’s deterrent capability. But his speech was seen as focused more on his willingness to reopen stalled denuclearization talks with Pyongyang.

“While North Korea’s nuclear weapon programs are a threat not only to our security and that of Northeast Asia, the door to dialogue will remain open so that we can peacefully resolve this threat,” Yoon said.

“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 added.

Yoon did not elaborate on his plan to re-engage or provide economic incentives to the North. But his national security adviser, Kim Sung-han, told Reuters during the election campaign that the Yoon government would devise a roadmap in early days in which Pyongyang could quickly earn sanctions relief or economic aid in exchange for denuclearization measures.

Yoon could face a security crisis if North Korea carries out its first nuclear test in five years, as U.S. and South Korean officials warned, after it broke a 2017 moratorium on long-range missile testing in March.