New S.Korea leader offers Pyongyang plan

·2-min read

South Korea's new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, says North Korea's weapons programs pose a threat but he is ready to provide an "audacious" economic plan if the North is committed to denuclearisation.

Yoon gave the remarks in his inauguration speech on Tuesday after being sworn in at a ceremony in front of parliament in Seoul. 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.

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 signalled a tougher line on North Korea, warning of a pre-emptive 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 denuclearisation 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 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."

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

Yoon won the election on a platform of fighting corruption and creating a more level economic playing field amid deepening public frustration with inequality and housing prices, as well as simmering gender and generational rivalry.

South Korea's inflation hit a more than 13-year high last month as Russia's invasion of Ukraine sent commodity prices soaring, boosting expectations of more central bank interest rate rises, which could threaten growth prospects.

Yoon did not mention inflation, but cited low growth, rising unemployment and wage gaps as key economic challenges, pledging to address those by focusing on developing science, technology and innovation.

He blamed anti-intellectualism for polarised politics and deepening internal strife, saying it has threatened to undercut democracy and the people's "sense of community and belonging".

Yoon formally assumed his duties at midnight on Monday with a bell-tolling ceremony at Bosingak Pavilion in downtown Seoul.

The inauguration will be held on the front lawn of parliament, attended by some 40,000 people.

The foreign guests included Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, and Douglas Emhoff, the husband of US Vice-President Kamala Harris.

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