SEOUL — South Korea in recent years has been a passive player on the global stage even as its economic and cultural influence ballooned, remaining wary of aggressive neighbors North Korea and China.
“We should not only focus on relations with North Korea, but rather expand the breadth of diplomacy in the E.U. and throughout Asia with the South Korea-U.S. relationship as our foundation,” Yoon Suk-yeol said Thursday. “We should take on a greater role in fulfilling our responsibility as one of the top 10 economies in the world.”
Yoon joins a growing cadre of leaders throughout the Asia-Pacific region who are abandoning conciliatory stances in defense of their countries and tightening alliances to counter China. He aspires to make South Korea a critical player in addressing global challenges — including supply chain management, climate change and vaccine production — moving away from a singular focus on North Korea and calibrating policy around it.
The question is how effective he can be in this goal. On May 10, Yoon is set to become the president of the world’s 10th-largest economy, although he has no policy or governing experience and was elected last month with the narrowest margin in the nation’s democratic history. He faces the test of rallying the opposition-controlled parliament and a divided nation weary of income inequality, soaring housing prices and empty promises of hope.
Central to Yoon’s foreign policy is “rebuilding” South Korea’s alliance with the United States, a nod to Washington’s frustrations with the outgoing government of President Moon Jae-in, whose foreign policy ambition of brokering peace with North Korea made him wary of jeopardizing relations with China and Russia, North Korea’s allies.
Yoon’s promises have been welcomed by Washington, U.S. analysts say, noting that the United States wants a stronger South Korea that is a reliable ally to help bolster democratic unity in the region.
Yoon, 61, is a first-time politician and former prosecutor general. The son of academics, Yoon graduated from prestigious Seoul National University and became a prosecutor in 1994 after passing the bar exam on his ninth try. He took on some of South Korea’s most powerful individuals — notably helping convict President Park Geun-hye in her impeachment trial.
Yoon lights up when talking about eating and cooking. On South Korean talk shows, he has showed off his culinary skills, deftly testing the heat of a stainless-steel pan with a drop of water and plating dishes with precision. Among his favorite dishes to cook are kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew), bulgogi (marinated beef), spaghetti and mushroom soup, he said.
“I believe it is very important and meaningful in life to spend quality time over meals with friends, family and other people close to us,” he said.
Yoon married for the first time at 51 and has four dogs and three cats. He has no children.
When asked about his role models as president, he said he admires Abraham Lincoln’s legacy as the defender of federalism and John F. Kennedy’s charm and civil rights legacy. He said footage of Kennedy taking sole responsibility for the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in a black-and-white documentary he watched in high school left a lasting impression.
Seoul as a ‘global pivotal state’
Yoon envisions South Korea as a “global pivotal state,” his take on a long-held vision among South Korean conservatives to define the country’s foreign policy on its own terms rather than as a response to North Korea.
That means South Korea needs to take on more responsibilities, including providing more developmental aid overseas, he said.
He cited as an example that South Korea has committed $10 million in aid to Ukraine — which equals roughly 20 cents per Ukrainian, an amount he thinks is insufficient. He said he has directed his staff to assess how Seoul can increase aid for Ukraine.
“We should take part in the international pressure campaign on Russia, which the current government is doing to a certain extent,” Yoon said. “When we are asked by the international community to participate more, we need to firmly demonstrate our attitude of respect for the international rules-based order.”
Yoon said that South Korea should lean on its military alliance with the United States to take a stronger political position on China, and that he does not view South Korea’s economic dependence on China as a one-way street. China remains South Korea’s biggest trading partner, but he said Seoul must recognize that Beijing also depends on it.
Before deciding whether to seek entry into the “Quad,” a grouping of the United States, Japan, Australia and India designed to counter China’s rise, Yoon said South Korea will support and cooperate with its working groups in tackling global issues such as vaccine distribution and climate change.
Yoon labeled North Korea as Seoul’s “main enemy,” a stance that marks a departure from that of his predecessor, who leaves a legacy of brokering nuclear negotiations between North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump. Yoon expressed concern about North Korea’s lifting of its self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests, but he said he would maintain a two-track response to pursue dialogue and offer humanitarian aid.
“Regardless of the circumstance, we are of the same race,” Yoon said.
Cooperation with U.S. and Japan
Relations between Japan and South Korea are once again at one of their lowest points in decades, a concern for the Biden administration as it seeks to work with its two major Asian allies to counter China’s supply chain dominance and North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
Yoon said dismal Seoul-Tokyo relations have backfired on South Korean companies and ordinary South Koreans who love traveling to Japan, and have hampered Seoul’s ability to coordinate with Tokyo and Washington.
Yoon said South Korea should work to rebuild confidence by having frequent conversations and visits with Japanese officials. Japanese officials have welcomed Yoon’s stance with caution.
“Our weakened relationship with Japan is the Achilles’ heel of South Korea-U.S.-Japan cooperation,” he said. “When I am president, South Korea-Japan relations will go well. I am sure of it.”
Closing the gender gap
One of the defining issues during the presidential campaign was gender, with Yoon’s campaign and party appealing to disaffected young men who are frustrated with the Moon administration’s policies of encouraging women to enter and stay in the workforce.
Yoon has proposed to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which has become a flash point in the gender war. For now, that decision appears to be on hold, as Yoon has named a new head of the agency.
Yoon acknowledged South Korea’s poor rankings on gender, regularly placing last or second to last among developed countries in an array of metrics on women’s economic and political empowerment, and he said South Korea needs to improve.
But he said there has been progress over the decades. When asked what role his administration will play in closing the gender gap, he said the government must guarantee legal rights for both sexes in unfair and criminal circumstances.
“I have a clear principle that we must conform to global standards for social and government activities,” he said. “Guaranteeing women’s opportunities must also go in line with global standards.”
Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.