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South Korea’s new president sworn in, calls on North to denuclearize

Yoon Suk-yeol takes an oath during his presidential inauguration ceremony May 10 in Seoul. (Lee Young-Ho/Bloomberg News)

TOKYO — South Korea’s new president took office on Tuesday, calling on North Korea to “genuinely” move toward denuclearization even as Pyongyang shows signs of preparing for a new nuclear test and is rapidly pursuing an ambitious weapons program.

Yoon Suk-yeol, who has called North Korea the South’s “main enemy,” offered to work with the international community to craft an “audacious plan” to improve North Korea’s economy in return for its commitment to “complete denuclearization.” He also said he would keep a door open to dialogue.

Yoon’s offer comes as U.S., South Korean and Japanese officials warn that Pyongyang is gearing up for its seventh nuclear test and as tensions are rising on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has conducted more than a dozen weapons tests this year in pursuit of a diversified arsenal — most recently conducting two suspected ballistic missile tests in the past week.

South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol unveils foreign policy goals

“Peace on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia is the same — our region cannot be exempt from threats that endanger the peace of other regions,” Yoon said in his speech. “North Korea’s denuclearization will greatly contribute to bringing lasting peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and beyond.”

In his farewell speech on Monday, outgoing liberal President Moon Jae-in — a staunch advocate of diplomacy with North Korea — made a final plea for inter-Korean dialogue and the peace process. Diplomacy with North Korea has stalled since 2019, when U.S.-North Korea denuclearization talks collapsed in Vietnam.

Yoon, 61, is a first-time politician and former prosecutor general who begins his five-year term amid soaring housing prices, deepening income inequality and a challenging economic recovery from the global coronavirus pandemic. He must now rally an opposition-controlled parliament and a divided country that elected him with the narrowest margin in South Korea’s democratic history.

Yoon will soon face his first diplomatic test on the global stage next week, when President Biden makes his state visit to Seoul. Biden and Yoon are expected to discuss North Korea, the war in Ukraine and strengthening the U.S.-South Korea-Japan alliance.

Yoon said South Korea, as the 10th-largest economy in the world, must play a greater role on international issues, noting major global challenges such as climate change, supply chain management and the energy crisis. He has emphasized the U.S.-South Korean alliance as central to his foreign policy goals.

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Although Yoon did not name China, he vowed to “actively protect and promote universal values and international norms that are based on freedom and respect for human rights.

“We must take on an even greater role in expanding freedom and human rights, not just for ourselves, but also for others. The international community expects us to do so. We must answer that call,” he said.

Some 40,000 people, including high-profile South Korean politicians and businesspeople, attended Tuesday’s ceremony, held in breezy spring weather at the National Assembly in Seoul. Second gentleman Doug Emhoff led the U.S. delegation to the ceremony.

Former conservative president Park Geun-hye, who was removed in 2017 after being impeached and convicted on abuse of power charges, sat in the front row alongside international dignitaries. Moon pardoned Park in December.

As prosecutor general, Yoon led the investigation into Park’s corruption scandal. Last month, he met with Park and apologized “on a human level” for their adversarial past.

In a ceremonial move, the Blue House presidential compound opened to the public at the end of the inauguration. Yoon has decided to relocate the presidential office to the Defense Ministry complex located in Yongsan district in central Seoul, a move his team said would return the Blue House to the public but has spurred criticism and a host of security and logistical challenges.

Kim reported from Seoul.