South Korea’s new president Yoon Suk-yeol is not going to “have much of a honeymoon period,” mentioned Kathleen Stephens, president and CEO of the Korea Economic Institute of America and former U.S. ambassador to South Korea.
“I think he said the right thing as he is inaugurated, about his desire to see Korea play a larger role in the global stage. I think that’s shared across party lines in Korea, he’s intended to address the challenges of North Korea and the economy,” Stephens mentioned.
“But I think no one in Korea and … others around the world are under the illusion about how difficult this is going to be.”
Speaking on CNBC’s “Street Signs Asia” after Yoon’s inauguration on Tuesday, Stephens mentioned what to anticipate from Yoon’s management as he takes workplace.
“He’s starting office with what has [been a] historically low approval rating before he has even taken office. He won a very, very by a very narrow margin of less than 1% in the election,” she added.
Calling Yoon a “political neophyte,” Stephens mentioned that native politics shall be a “big challenge.”
“He’s facing local elections happening on June 1, where his rival in the presidential election is running for the National Assembly seat … [which] is dominated by the other party.”
She was referring to Lee Jae-myung, who was Yoon’s opponent from the Democratic Party. Yoon defeated Lee with 48.6% of the vote.
Navigating a ‘geopolitical flux’
Yoon has neither political expertise nor international coverage expertise, mentioned Stephens.
“He is a lifelong prosecutor and lawyer. What he has done is recruit a team … many of them worked for previous conservative president Lee Myung-bak,” she added.
“I think what we will see is a tougher rhetorical line on North Korea … a more robust effort to have things like military exercises to demonstrate deterrence against North Korea, to build up South Korean military capacity, to make sure the U.S. Korea security alliance is very, very strong.”
However, Stephens mentioned that Yoon shall be searching for probabilities to open up “space for dialogue” with North Korea, one thing which has been “true of previous conservative presidents.”
Other duties that Yoon faces embody managing a “fractious relationship with China” whereas rising nearer to the United States, she added.
Tom Rafferty, Asia regional director at The Economist Intelligence Unit, had beforehand shared with CNBC that Yoon has signaled he would pursue nearer relations with the United States. However, that might have an effect on Seoul’s relations with China, South Korea’s largest export market.
With this “geopolitical flux” in thoughts, Stephens mentioned that Yoon’s room for maneuver is pretty small, particularly since he’s “untested as a leader.”
“But at the same time, there is a strong kind of bipartisan-based approach that has worked for [South] Korea for a long time.”
Biden and Yoon’s first assembly
U.S. President Joe Biden shall be visiting South Korea and assembly Yoon for the primary time on May 21. Stephens mentioned that is a “very gracious and graceful sign.”
“The American president and the Washington establishment recognizes that [South] Korea is a democracy … and that the alliance transcends hopefully, partisan divides,” she added.
“This will be our first chance to see really how President Yoon operates in the international environment.”
Biden had beforehand expressed urgency in passing the Bipartisan Innovation Act, a multibillion greenback funding within the U.S. semiconductor business. That makes the assembly “even more important,” Stephens mentioned, provided that South Korea is a crucial world participant within the business.
“I think that will be an important element of their discussion of how the United States and South Korea … can work together for secure technology, secure supply chains,” she added.