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US may have a new friend in Asia to take on China, North Korea

Conservative Yoon Suk-yeol’s election win this week is well-timed for Biden, who is seeking to rally allies to counter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s assertiveness over disputed territory and North Korea’s tests of longer-range missiles and nuclear weapons. Outgoing President Moon Jae-in’s feud with Japan and efforts to court China frustrated American efforts to stitch together a stronger coalition in Asia. 

Yoon and his conservative People Power Party signaled a tougher line against Beijing and Pyongyang throughout his campaign. The former top prosecutor and foreign policy novice vowed Thursday to make sure South Korea was “reborn” as a “pivotal country that contributes to freedom, peace and prosperity.”

To that end, Yoon said he would improve ties with the U.S. by taking part in America’s new supply chain initiative and strengthening its military and economic cooperation with Washington. In a phone call with Yoon shortly after his win was confirmed Thursday, Biden cited the pandemic, supply chains and the threats posed by North Korea’s weapons program as potential areas of cooperation. 

The U.S. on Thursday said it was preparing new penalties against North Korea after determining that Kim Jong Un’s regime used a pair of recent missile launches to test systems for a new ICBM project under development. The restrictions would aim to further block North Korea’s purchase of foreign technologies, a senior Biden Administration official told reporters, without providing more details.

“The conservative victory in Seoul is good for the U.S. alliance system — not just with regard to DPRK, but also in balancing China,” Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, wrote in a Bloomberg online question session. He referred to North Korea by its formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Moon largely avoided stances that would rankle China, South Korea’s country’s biggest trading partner, as part of his long-held goal to improve ties with North Korea. After taking office, he pressed the Biden administration to back his plan for a declaration to end the 1950-1953 Korean War — a move that could be seen as running against Washington’s long-standing policy of accepting a peace deal only after Pyongyang ends its atomic weapons program.

During the campaign, Yoon said he would back a preemptive strike if North Korea posed an immediate threat and called for a new deployment of a U.S.-made missile interceptor system known as THAAD. China previously banned sales of group tour packages and appearances of Korean celebrities on television shows in unofficial retaliation for Seoul’s deployment of THAAD. 

One test for Yoon will be whether he amplifies joint military drills with the U.S. that attracted loud criticism from North Korea. The exercises were scaled down during the Trump administration as Moon sought to facilitate talks with Kim. 

‘In the Same Place’

He also faces the task of improving ties with Japan. The two countries sparred frequently on longstanding issues stemming from Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea from 1910-1945, impeding cooperation with the U.S. in coordinating policy on North Korea. 

Yoon is a political newcomer and a lot isn’t known yet about his foreign policy, said Rui Matsukawa, a lawmaker with Japan’s conservative ruling party and a former diplomat who spent part of her career based in Seoul.

“But at least it’s a change in administration from a left-wing government to conservative,” she said in an interview. “I have positive expectations, because I think we are all in the same place on our approach to China and North Korea.” 

Another question is whether Yoon will push for South Korea to join the “Quad” grouping that contains Australia, Japan, India and the U.S., which seeks to counter an increasingly assertive China in the Indo-Pacific. The group has been chastised by China as a “clique” that could stoke a new Cold War. 

Nuclear Weapons

Yoon, who is set to take office May 10, has distanced himself from some conservatives who want the U.S. to redeploy American strategic nuclear weapons — or even have South Korea develop its own. 

More than half of South Koreans support the acquisition of nuclear weapons either through indigenous development or the deployment of U.S. nuclear assets in South Korea, according to a Chicago Council on Global Affairs report last month. 

The Yoon government will participate in multilateral security platforms and would seek a bigger role in the regional security, according to Cha Du-hyeogn, who served as a security adviser to former conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. 

“South Korea is most likely to conduct its joint military drills with the U.S. in full scale, and also align with Biden and other countries’ stance on human right issues,” Cha said.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.

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