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  • Writer's pictureDaeun Choi

Unity through Confrontation: What Yoon Suk-Yeol’s Presidency means for Inter-Korean Relations

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President Yoon Suk-yeol’s inaugural ceremony took place at a plaza in front of the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea, on May 10. President Yoon won the election by a narrow margin (0.73%), but this narrow margin is expected to bring about a big change in policy on North Korea. The Moon Jae-in administration has pursued a dialogue with North Korea with the aim of halting the development of North Korean nuclear weapons.

Moon made effort to advance substantial progress in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula during his initial years in office. However, Yoon Suk-yeol, who emphasized building up extended deterrence against North Korea, won the presidential election. This research paper will analyze what we can possibly expect from Yoon’s policy towards North Korea based on actions during his campaign and first few months after taking office.

North Korea’s threats

After the Hanoi Summit in February 2019 failed to reach an accord between the US and North Korea, Inter-Korean relations reached a deadlock. After the summit, North Korea started military provocations and also declined to maintain a dialogue with the US and South Korea. In May 2019, North Korea launched two short-range missiles in protest over the No-Deal Hanoi Summit, and further tested new ballistic missiles in July (Kwon et al, 2019). In response to North Korea’s missile launch, the Blue House officially voiced concerns about North Korea’s military provocation (Berlinger et al, 2019). Inter-Korean relations are also taking a new turn – the chilly relationship between the two sides deteriorated after North Korea suddenly blew up the joint liaison office along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) without notice (Banka, 2020). It also launched a series of missiles numerous times from January until March of 2022, ahead of the presidential election in South Korea.

Before Yoon’s win, North Korea launched more missiles towards the East Sea of South Korea and showed off its nuclear weapons capabilities at a military parade (Lim, 2022). North Korea’s threats have questioned Moon’s engagement policy towards North Korea. Amid concerns posed by North Korea, the main presidential candidates clearly presented a different view about North Korea. Yoon Suk-yeol, the candidate for the conservative People Power Party (PPP), insisted that sanctions continue until North Korea denuclearizes, and that South Korea establish “Peace through Strength” by building up extended deterrent forces (Kang, 2022). Meanwhile Lee Jae-myung, the candidate for the ruling Democratic Party (DP), asserted the conditional lifting of economic sanctions on North Korea (Ibid). Lee also pledged to strengthen economic cooperation between South Korea and North Korea. Amid the tension posed by North Korea, it seemed to voters that Lee’s pledge was an extension of the Moon Jae-in administration’s engagement policy toward North Korea (Ibid). This research paper can make sure that Yoon’s hardline approach toward North Korea is attracting more South Korean voters than Lee’s economic cooperation-oriented policy, amid the tension posed by North Korea.

Yoon’s new policy on North Korea.

In April, North Korea is determined to advance the development of nuclear programs, and recently launched a ‘New type of tactical guided weapons’ (Shin, 2022). This situation has reinforced military deterrence against North Korea through close ties between the US and South Korea has gained more importance and it has spontaneously affected Yoon’s incoming government in terms of foreign and security policies. Reflecting such concerns, president-elect Yoon heralds a new policy on North Korea, which is bound to pose deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles.

During his campaign, Yoon publicly mentioned the possibility of launching a preemptive strike against North Korea at a New Year’s press conference and a live broadcast TV debate (Kim & Kwon, 2022 & Shin, 2022). He also pledged to build up deterrence against North Korea by deploying more Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) on the Korean Peninsula as demonstrated by previous conservative South Korean governments (Ji, 2022).

Yoon’s diplomatic advisors strongly highlight the necessity of reviving “the three-axis” system consisting of:

1) Korean Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR): As South Korea’s military operation doctrine, it carries out massive retaliation against North Korea’s missiles if North Korea attacks South Korea (Jun, 2016).

2) Kill Chain: a defense system, is designed to carry out a pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s threats if North Korea’s threat is detected (Ibid).

3) Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD): A missile defense program, aims at shooting down incoming North Korean missiles at altitudes of 50-60 kilometers (Park, 2022).

The three-axis system, South Korea’s military program which aims at responding to North Korea’s nuclear and missile attacks in the case of emergency, was completed during two conservative governments under Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye (Shin, 2022). The Ministry of National Defense under Moon Jae-in changed its original name to “The system to respond to nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD)” as a follow-up to the three inter-Korean summits (Noh, 2019). Whilst the policy remained the same, it was thought that changing the terminology would be less provocative towards the North (Ibid). Yoon, however, pledged to revive the three-axis name and reactivate the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG) to discuss the presence of US strategic assets on the peninsula (Bremer, 2022). He emphasized that peace can be achieved through strength, as opposed to Lee Jae-Myung, the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party, who emphasized peace without fighting (Kang, 2022). Yoon’s key foreign policy and security pledges put the emphasis on building deterrence against North Korea through the alliance with the US.

After being elected as president, Yoon’s transition committee team announced the designation of nominees, Park Jin, Kwon Yong-se and Kim Sung-han, as the new ministers of Foreign Affairs and Unifications, and National Security Policy Advisor, respectively (Kim, S. 2022 &Jung, 2022). A noticeable point is that they played major roles in previous conservative governments, which took pressure-sanction policy towards North Korea, as diplomatic and security advisors. Like Yoon, these nominees also assert that sanctions continue until North Korea’s denuclearization is realized (Ibid). In light of Yoon’s inauguration and public speech, Yoon’s policy is highly likely to be hostile. However, it is too early to conclude that Yoon will only focus on hostile policy because there is a possibility of adopting a combination of deterrence and engagement with North Korea in line with the Biden administration’s new policy.

The Biden Administration’s policy on North Korea

On April 30, 2021, the then White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced the completion of the Biden Administration’s policy review on North Korea after Biden took office in January 2021. She said that the Biden Administration wouldn’t seek any “Grand Bargain” with North Korea but will continue to engage with the country (Byun, 2021). The Biden Administration also highlighted that it would neither pursue the Obama Administration’s “Strategic Patience” nor Trump Administration’s “Maximum Pressure and Personal Engagement with Kim” (Hudson & Nakashima, 2021). Psaki called it a ‘calibrated practical approach’, she also stressed the importance of cooperation among allies including South Korea and Japan in order to realize Pyongyang’s complete denuclearization (Byun, 2021).

President Biden has appointed some diplomats and experts, many of whom worked for the Obama Administration, to key positions relating to North Korea, like the current special representative for the DPRK Ambassador Sung Kim. Sung Kim served under the Obama administration US ambassador to South Korea and is known as an expert on North Korean relations (Wise, 2021). Biden’s policy is likely to mirror Obama’s in some capacity, however, the Biden administration announced its own path to complete the denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula in order to avoid the same mistakes its predecessors have done.

In line with the Biden administration’s new policy on North Korea, Special Representative for the DPRK Ambassador Sung Kim announced that the US will continue to open diplomatic communication channels to North Korea without preconditions. He added that the US and its allies are determined to reduce the threats posed by North Korea during his visit to South Korea in April (U.S Embassy Seoul, 2022).

Although one year has passed since the Biden administration announced the completion of the North Korea policy review, North Korea still continues to advance the development of nuclear weapons and even possesses an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of hitting the continental United States (Rugglero & Zwelg, 2022).

Considering the security issue on the Korean Peninsula, the US and South Korea are strongly required to adopt a “stern deterrence” approach to North Korea in collaboration with US-Japan-ROK trilateral security cooperation (Lee, 2022). This article expects that both allies will not only pursue a “stern deterrence” but also follow a “diplomatic engagement” policy so that both governments will avoid the mistakes of previous administrations.

Learning lessons from failure

The Obama administration adopted a “Strategic Patience” policy which refused diplomatic engagement with North Korea until North Korea’s denuclearization was realized. However, the “Strategic Patience” policy allowed North Korea to develop nuclear weapons and military capabilities without any interpretation (Coduti, 2016). The Trump administration’s Maximum Pressure and Personal Engagement” approach emphasized forcing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and maintaining a dialogue with Kim Jong Un. Trump’s policy seemed to achieve the goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as he announced the Singapore Summit Joint Statement which reconfirmed the commitment to denuclearize North Korea. However, Trump failed to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, ending the second summit without any agreement (Snyder, 2019). Learning from failure, the Biden administration charted its own path toward North Korea, the so-called “Stern deterrence and Diplomacy” strategy.

South Korea’s consecutive conservative governments, Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) and Park Geun-hye (2013-2017) only adopted a maximum pressure and sanctions policy toward North Korea. During this period, South Korea went through a period of rising tension on the Korean Peninsula and experienced China’s strong opposition over THAAD deployment in South Korea (Wertz, 2017). It is clear that Moon Jae-in’s policy contributed to easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula in his early days in office by holding the inter-Korean summit. Therefore, it is necessary for Yoon to maintain a certain level of communication with Pyongyang. Yoon picked up experts from previous conservative governments, many of which were involved in dealing with North Korea. During his speech at the National Assembly, Yoon Suk-yeol said that South Korea is willing to provide humanitarian aid to North Korea such as COVID assistance, and vaccines (Seo, 2022).

New Unification Minister Kwon Yong-Se, served as Ambassador to China under Park Geun-hye, highlighted ‘unconditional’ cooperation with North Korea on the COVID-19 issue (Yi & Chae, 2022). In light of their public announcements on North Korea, there is a chance to maintain dialogue with Kim, unlike previous conservative governments. Learning lessons from their previous governments’ failures, the Biden and Yoon Suk-yeol administrations are likely to adopt the twin tactics of pressure and communication, but a noticeable point is that they would put more priority on deterrence than engagement in light of North Korea’s threat.


This paper analyzes what Yoon’s North Korea policy will likely resembled, based on his past comments, changes in the US approach under Biden and actions taken early in Yoon’s presidency. Amidst the growing tension posed by North Korea’s threat, South Korean voters started to question Moon Jae-in administration’s engagement policy, leading to Yoon’s election victory. After taking office, Yoon nominated experts from previous conservative governments with a history of supporting more hardline policies. Therefore, it is believed that Yoon will only pursue a hostile policy, but this paper points out that he is likely to maintain a certain level of communication with North Korea in line with the Biden administration’s new policy which pursues “a stern deference” and “diplomacy” approach. Like Yoon, Biden appointed some experts from the Obama administration as diplomatic advisors, however, the Biden administration unveiled its own path toward North Korea that diverts from Obama’s approach. This paper can make sure that both allies try to chart their own policy in order to avoid the mistake of their previous governments. It points out that they are likely to put more priority on deterrence than engagement, even if they employ the twin tactics of pressure and communication at the same time.


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