Yoon Suk-yeol has been sworn in as South Korea’s new president promising an “audacious” plan to North Korea, and to reinforce the South’s democracy and freedoms.
Yoon, a former prosecutor, won the election in March by the slimmest of margins, promising to “sternly deal” with the threat posed by Kim Jong Un’s regime, while leaving open the door to dialogue.
Predecessor Moon Jae-in pursued a policy of engagement with the North holding a summit with Kim in 2018. He also brokered two summits between Kim and then-United States President Donald Trump, before relations broke down in 2019. Denuclearisation talks have been stalled ever since.
The 61-year-old Yoon offered an olive branch to Pyongyang, which has conducted a record 15 weapons tests since January, two of them in the past week.
“While North Korea’s nuclear weapon programmes 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,” the new president told the audience of about 40,000 people on the lawn outside the national assembly.
“If North Korea genuinely embarks on a process to complete denuclearisation, 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.”
Seated among the guests was Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, Japanese foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, and Doug Emhoff, the husband of US Vice President Kamala Harris, are also attending.
Yoon also spoke of strengthening South Korea’s democracy and economy. He mentioned ‘freedom’ 35 times in his speech.
“It is our generation’s calling to build a nation that espouses liberal democracy and ensures a thriving market economy, a nation that fulfills its responsibility as a trusted member of the international community, and a nation that truly belongs to the people,” he said.
Yoon is taking office with some of the lowest approval ratings – about 41 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll – of any democratically elected South Korean president.
A plan to relocate the presidential office from the decades-old Blue House has soured the public mood with many South Koreans viewing the costly move as unnecessary.