S. Korea’s new president pledges to lead nation out of latest crises, offers ‘audacious plan’ for N. Korea

Mr Yoon formally assumed his duties at midnight on Monday with a bell-tolling ceremony at Bosingak Pavilion in Seoul. PHOTO: AFP
President Yoon Suk-yeol and his wife, Kim Keon-hee, wave toward people lining up along the road while entering the presidential office. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
President Yoon Suk-yeol (fourth from left) toasts during a banquet to celebrate his inauguration on May 10, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Supporters cheer as President Yoon Suk-yeol waves from his car after his inauguration ceremony on May 10, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL - South Korea’s new president Yoon Suk-yeol has pledged to build a society based on freedom and fairness, and to lead the nation out of multiple crises, including the global Covid-19 pandemic, record-low economic growth and rising unemployment.

“It is our generation’s calling to build a nation that espouses liberal democracy and ensures a thriving market economy, a nation that fulfils its responsibility as a trusted member of the international community, and a nation that truly belongs to the people,” he said in his inauguration speech on Tuesday (May 10).

“We can overcome the challenges that we face today and the ones that we will undoubtedly have to face in the future.”

Mr Yoon, 61, was sworn in as South Korea’s 20th president on Tuesday morning in front of about 41,000 people who had gathered at the National Assembly Plaza.

He was accompanied by his wife Kim Kun-hee, who made her first official appearance after keeping a low profile for months.

Singapore President Halimah Yacob, United States Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, Japan’s Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and China’s Vice-President Wang Qishan were among the 300 foreign guests in the ceremony.

Mr Yoon’s inauguration comes at a time of rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, with North Korea having conducted 15 missile tests since January, while nuclear talks with the US have remained in deadlock since 2019.

During his speech, Mr Yoon offered to present “an audacious plan that will vastly strengthen North Korea’s economy and improve the quality of life for its people”, if the regime “genuinely embarks on a process to complete denuclearisation”.

“North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme is a threat - and not just to our security or  that of North-east Asia,” he said. 

“The door to dialogue will remain open so that we can peacefully resolve this threat.”

Mr Yoon was elected in March on a promise to restore justice and fairness to a nation disappointed with the previous administration’s double standards and numerous policy failures, such as the inability to curb sky-rocketing property prices and create quality jobs for young people.

He has promised to strengthen South Korea’s military alliance with the US and align more closely with Washington’s diplomacy, as well as improve soured ties with Japan and recalibrate relations with China.

He is also widely expected to adopt a tougher stance towards North Korea compared with his dovish predecessor Moon Jae-in, who staked most of his political capital on a peace policy focused on engagement with the North. 

During his speech, Mr Yoon noted that many countries, including South Korea, are faced with multiple crises, ranging from armed conflict to climate change, polarisation, rising cost of food and energy, growing unemployment and global chain supply disruptions.

“A belief in shared values is paramount if we are to successfully overcome these challenges,” he said, adding that freedom is a core value that must be embraced to allow prosperity to flourish.

Rapid and sustainable growth in areas such as science, technology and innovation will also help to open up new opportunities and improve social mobility, “thereby helping rid us of the fundamental obstacles that are aggravating social divides and conflicts”, he said. 

He also stressed that South Korea, being the 10th-largest economy in the world, must “take on a greater role befitting our stature as a global leader” and strive to protect, promote and expand universal values and international norms based on freedom and respect for human rights.

“I solemnly pledge today that I will do my utmost to elevate (South) Korea into a country that truly belongs to the people, a country based on the pillars of freedom, human rights, fairness and solidarity, a country that is respected by others around the world,” he said.

“Let us embark on this journey together.”

People walk up to the Blue House, now open to the public, in Seoul on May 10, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Mr Yoon’s inauguration marks a new era - he will be the first president to work from the up and rising Yongsan district in Seoul, instead of the more secluded Blue House located at the foot of a mountain.

The former prosecutor-general has decided to shift his office to the former Defence Ministry building to be closer to the people.

Cheong Wa Dae, the office and residence for South Korean presidents in the past 74 years, is now open to the public instead. More than 6,000 people visited the 250,000 sq m compound on Tuesday.

Mr Yoon began his five-year term at midnight, taking over as commander-in-chief of the military and receiving a briefing from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

He returned to his office after the inauguration ceremony to hold separate meetings with foreign envoys.

He received letters from three leaders - US President Joe Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

The US envoy, Mr Emhoff, the husband of Vice-President Kamala Harris, said Mr Biden's letter contained his will to work closely with Mr Yoon over the next five years, and that the US President is looking forward to meeting Mr Yoon when he visits Seoul next week.

In talks with Japan's Mr Hayashi, Mr Yoon said he is looking forward to meeting Mr Kishida soon and working with him to improve ties between the two countries.

China's Mr Wang conveyed an invitation from President Xi for Mr Yoon to visit China and suggested five ways for the two countries to deepen future ties.

These include strengthening strategic communication between the two sides, boosting economic cooperation, promoting friendship between their people as the two countries mark 30 years of bilateral relations this year, working closely on multilateral platforms, and increasing cooperation on issues related to North Korea.

In response, Mr Yoon said he understands "China's will in placing great importance on Korea-China relations".

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