South Korea's New President-Elect Yoon Suk-yeol

While the election focused primarily on domestic issues, the following provides a brief overview of President-elect Yoon's key campaign positions and pledges on issues that relate to North Korea and nuclear risks on the Korean Peninsula.

Key Positions on North Korea and Nuclear Issues

As a career prosecutor, Yoon has not yet developed some key positions on foreign and security policy; such policies may be developed or fine-tuned in the coming months, once the new administration has taken shape. The dominant focus on domestic issues during the campaign also suggests that the first few months will be spent on addressing those. As such, a full unveiling of the new administration's North Korea policy may take some time.

Nonetheless, it is already clear that his election marks a significant shift away from outgoing President Moon Jae-in's focus on engaging North Korea in dialogue and promoting a comprehensive peace process centered on diplomacy. Yoon has adopted mainstream conservative positions on North Korea and is expected to take a more hard-line approach on North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missiles programmes, while seeking a stronger alignment with the United States on North Korea, China and Russia, as well as improve ties with Japan.

Denuclearization and Inter-Korean Relations

"In order to protect the safety of the people, property, territory, and sovereignty, we will build strong defensive capabilities that can reliably suppress any provocation. North Korea's illegal and irrational actions will be dealt with firmly in accordance with principles, but the door to inter-Korean dialogue will always be open." (Election victory speech, 10 March 2022)

Yoon has pledged to adopt a more hard-line approach and has emphasized the importance of domestic military capabilities for deterrence purposes. At the same time, however, he is open to inter-Korean dialogue under certain circumstances.

"My administration will prepare an inter-Korean peace treaty when and if North Korea makes active efforts in complete and verifiable denuclearization. Comprehensive economic aid and cooperation will then follow. We will put together a large-scale program of investment and aid in partnership with global financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. In fact, such economic support and cooperation for North Korea may materialize even before denuclearization is complete, provided that North Korea makes substantial progress towards this goal." (Foreign policy speech, 24 January 2022)

Yoon has emphasized that North Korea has to first show clear intent that it is willing to move towards "complete and verifiable denuclearization" for South Korea to provide economic aid and for sanctions to be eased.

"The situation in Ukraine shows us that national security and peace cannot be maintained with agreements on paper. One needs to have clear strengths and strong alliances, and Ukraine had neither." (TV debate, 25 February 2022)

Yoon has rejected the idea of an "end-of-war declaration" at this time and has placed greater importance on strong military capabilities and alliances.

Strengthening the US-ROK Alliance and Extended Deterrence

"Seoul must neutralize North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities by strengthening South Korea's air and missile defenses and reinforcing Washington's extended deterrence against North Korea. South Korea can achieve this by regularly holding the tabletop exercises with the United States, which were conducted only twice during the Moon administration, and by establishing a more concrete agenda for the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group that Washington and Seoul established in 2016." (Foreign Affairs, 9 February 2022)

Yoon has expressed his intention to engage the US on strengthening extended deterrence and has also highlighted the importance of rotational deployment of US strategic assets.

"Nuclear-powered submarines are not needed right away for South Korea's security, even though it wouldn’t be bad to have them either. The most important thing is coping with North Korea's nuclear threat and, relatedly, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. In this regard, it is very important that South Korea, the US and Japan work closely together." (Press conference, 12 November 2021)

Yoon is not expected to request US support for a nuclear-powered submarine programme. Instead, he has expressed his intention to work on improving intelligence sharing between South Korea, the US and Japan.

"South Korea should never feel compelled to choose between the United States and China; rather, it must always maintain the principled position that it will not compromise on its core security interests. Securing deterrence against the North Korean threat is a matter of sovereignty, and Seoul should remain open to additional deployments of THAAD in proportion to North Korea's growing missile threat." (Foreign Affairs, 9 February 2022)

Yoon has suggested that he intends to strengthen missile defense capabilities, including by possibly requesting additional US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries for an improved layered missile defense system to better protect the Greater Seoul region.

"South Korea should actively promote a free, open, and inclusive order in the Indo-Pacific. Seoul should willingly participate in Quadrilateral Security Dialogue working groups, consider joining multilateral regional cooperative initiatives in phases, and take part in trilateral security coordination with the United States and Japan." (Foreign Affairs, 9 February 2022)

The new administration will likely more closely align itself with the US on broader regional issues and be vocal about its support for the US Indo-Pacific strategy.

Enhancing Military Capabilities for Stronger Deterrence by Denial

"Above all, we must restore and strengthen the 'three-axis system,' which has become obsolete." (Facebook, 17 January 2022)

Yoon has repeatedly underlined the importance of enhancing domestic military capabilities for stronger deterrence by denial. He seeks to enhance the "three-axis" defense framework, which has existed in different versions in South Korean military planning since 2016. It consists of a "kill-chain" preemptive strike system, the "Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD)" and the "Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR)", for strikes against nuclear and missile operations systems, terminal phase missile interception capabilities and retaliatory strikes against key leadership sites, respectively. In particular, Yoon has highlighted the need to acquire better capabilities that would allow for reliable preemptive strikes on North Korean targets in the event that the South Korean military detects signs of an imminent attack.

Nuclear Energy

"Cancellation of the nuclear phase out and becoming the strongest country in nuclear power plants." (Facebook, 25 January 2022)

Yoon is expected to cancel the outgoing Moon administration's nuclear energy phase-out plans. He has pledged to maintain a 30% nuclear energy share of the nation’s energy demands and to continue operation of operating nuclear power plants, while resuming the currently suspended construction of Shin-Hanul Units 3 and 4.

To Learn More:

Foreign and Security Policy Pledges (in Korean):

Presentation of foreign and security policy pledges (in Korean): 

Foreign Affairs article on foreign policy vision, published on 8 February 2022 (in English): 

CSIS Korea Chair's interview with key foreign policy advisor Kim Sung-han on 11 February 2022 (in English):