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Analysis: What Can the US Expect From South Korea's New President?

South Korea's president-elect Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during a news conference at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, March 10, 2022.

Experts expect the alliance between the United States and South Korea to become tighter under President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, who made campaign promises to align with Washington to create a united front against North Korean threats and Chinese aggression.

"The alliance relationship will tighten up" under a conservative Yoon government compared with how it was under the progressive Moon Jae-in government, said Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, a nonprofit research firm dedicated to the safety of the U.S.

Evans Revere, a former State Department official with extensive experience negotiating with North Korea, said, "Under President-elect Yoon's [administration], the United States and South Korea are likely to find themselves on the same page more often than in the recent past on a range of issues including the best strategy for dealing with North Korea."

Yoon, the candidate of the conservative People Power Party, won the election early Thursday morning in a tight race, gaining 48.6% of the vote against his opponent, Lee Jae-myung of the progressive Democratic Party, who had 47.8%. Yoon will serve a five-year term in Asia's fourth-largest economy as the China-U.S. rivalry continues to grow regionally and globally.

The U.S. looks forward to working with South Korea under Yoon​'s leadership and strengthening its "ironclad" alliance with the country, the White House told VOA's Korean Service Wednesday.

"We congratulate President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol," said a White House spokesperson. ​"The alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea, our economies and our people, is ironclad. President (Joe) Biden looks forward to working with the new administration to further expand our close cooperation."

The 61-year-old Yoon will take over as the U.S. is trying to deal with major global challenges from North Korea, China, Russia and others that pose threats to liberal democratic order.

Alignment on North Korea policy

Under Yoon, ​Seoul's policies on North Korea will align with Washington's, making cooperation between the allies easier, experts said.

"The election of President Yoon will likely more closely align the ROK and the U.S., as there will be fewer tactical differences, particularly on North Korea," said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. South Korea's official name is the Republic of Korea (ROK).

Gause said Washington and Seoul will demonstrate unity when dealing with Pyongyang's nuclear and missile threats, applying pressure rather than seeking the engagement that the Moon government sought with Pyongyang.

"They're going to show a very united front against North Korea," said Gause. "We will see some fairly tough rhetoric coming out of the Blue House [under Yoon] about how [Seoul is] prepared" and "capable of deterring the North." The Blue House in Seoul functions as the executive office and official residence of South Korea's president, much as the White House does in the U.S.

Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest, a Washington-based public policy think tank, said he expects Yoon to "build out a strategy trying to take on Pyongyang from a position of strength — spending more on nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, and ballistic and cruise missiles — to negate advances Pyongyang has made in the last few years."

While campaigning in February, Yoon called for a second "multilevel missile defense system that includes Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)." China opposed the first deployment of THAAD from the U.S. to South Korea in 2017 for the purpose of defending against potential North Korean missile attacks. Beijing said it posed a threat to China, and it responded with economic retaliation.

Yoon also called for a U.S. security commitment to deter North Korea and said he wanted to launch preemptive strikes on North Korea if Pyongyang displayed signs of attacking.

Washington is likely to ​support Yoon's efforts to advance Seoul's military capabilities as President Joe Biden deals with Russian aggression in Ukraine, Kazianis said.

In an article published by Foreign Affairs in February, Yoon wrote, "A deeper alliance with Washington should be the central axis of Seoul's foreign policy."

In his article, Yoon criticized the Moon government's policy toward North Korea. "A foreign policy tailored mostly to improve relations with North Korea has allowed Seoul's role in the global community to shrink," he wrote.

He continued: "Most importantly, the U.S.-South Korean alliance has drifted owing to differences between the two countries on North Korea policy."

Yoon emphasized that Seoul under Moon had prioritized inter-Korean cooperation, while Washington had sought to deal with Pyongyang's nuclear threats and human rights violations.

VOA's Korean Service contacted the North Korean mission at the United Nations for a response to Yoon's victory but did not receive a reply.

Expanding role

Experts also see Yoon's government playing an expanded role in U.S.-led security alliances by cooperating with Washington's efforts to improve Seoul's frayed bilateral ties with Japan and the Biden administration's multilateral efforts to counter an aggressive China in the Indo-Pacific.

Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, "The Biden administration will welcome Yoon's foreign policy emphasis and will look forward to strengthening South Korean contributions in the multilateral context of the Indo-Pacific and in the trilateral context of U.S.-Japan-South Korea relations."

Yoon has been supportive of Seoul's participation in the so-called QUAD security dialogue of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia. And during his campaign, he pledged to normalize ties with Tokyo.

Although South Korea under Yoon will try to foster constructive relations with China, the conservative's presidential victory poses challenges to Beijing, Snyder said.

"Yoon's election poses a challenge for China, in particular in terms of how Beijing positions itself in the face of stronger South Korean alignment with the United States and what tools it might use in response," Snyder added.

When asked for Beijing's response to Yoon's election, Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, told VOA's Korean Service that South Korea's "election is an internal affair of the ROK and I have no comment on it."

He continued: "China and the ROK are inseparable neighbors and partners for win-win cooperation. China is ready to work with the ROK to maintain high-level exchanges" and deepen cooperation, including in the areas of economy, trade and culture and "for greater development of bilateral relations."

Journalist Eunjung Cho contributed to this report, which originated with VOA's Korean Service.