President Yoon Suk-yeol on Tuesday addressed the National Assembly amid escalating partisan conflict that led to an unprecedented complete boycott by the main opposition party.
Doubling down on defense
In the address, Yoon stressed the need to strengthen deterrence against North Korea, saying that another nuclear weapons test by Pyongyang is imminent.
“It is judged that North Korea has already completed preparations for its seventh nuclear test,” Yoon said.
"North Korea has recently continued its threatening provocations, including ballistic missiles launches, which is a grave violation of UN Security Council resolutions and a direct challenge to the international community," he said.
He vowed to create a strong nation that no one could underrate by strengthening defense, promoting first-class veterans and boosting soldiers’ morale.
In response to security threats, Yoon pledged to “invest 5.3 trillion won ($3.7 billion) in upgrading the Korean-style three-axis system,” such as the Hyunmoo missile, F-35A and Patriot and long-range artillery interception system.
"We will expand investment for the conversion of manned and unmanned combined weapon systems such as robots and drones, as well as the development of military reconnaissance satellites and expansion of power for future battlefields such as cyberwarfare,” he added.
Yoon also presented the budget for soldiers, saying respecting the devotion to the country is the basis of strong national defense.
"We will raise the soldier salary of the current 820,000 won to 1.3 million won (per month) next year to raise the salaries to 2.05 million won by 2025."
Yoon announced that the government would fully invest in cutting-edge technologies such as semiconductors and nuclear power generation.
“To maintain the supergap of memory semiconductors and secure the competitiveness of system semiconductors, we will invest a total of more than 1 trillion won in nurturing professional manpower, R&D and infrastructure construction,” he said.
Yoon added it is urgent to restore the collapsed nuclear energy ecosystem. He promised to actively support the export of nuclear power plants and R&D of next-generation technologies such as small modular reactors and nuclear power plant dismantling technology development.
“We will support R&D investment of 4.9 trillion won in order to preoccupy key strategic technologies such as quantum computing, aerospace, artificial intelligence and advanced biotechnology and future technology markets," he said.
Total expenditures for next year are set for 639 trillion won, the first on-year reduction in the budget since 2010.
President Yoon cited lax fiscal management as the background for the reduction, blaming the previous Moon Jae-in administration.
“The fiscal deficit widened rapidly, and the national debt exceeded 1,000 trillion won, which is half of the gross domestic product,” he said.
Despite the reduction, he vowed to strengthen “welfare for the weak,” which provides more support for ordinary people and the socially disadvantaged.
About 18.7 trillion won was reflected in basic living security support by adjusting the standard median income. The government will also expand the scope of social insurance support for low-wage workers, special types of workers and artists to be provided to an additional 278,000 people.
Yoon’s 18-minute address was marred by the absence of the Democratic Party of Korea, which boycotted the yearly event over ongoing criminal investigations into the party’s leader, Rep. Lee Jae-myung.
As the Democratic Party holds about 60 percent of the 300 seats of the National Assembly, the floor of the main chamber where the president gave his address appeared largely empty.
Ahead of the president’s arrival and immediately following his address, Democratic Party lawmakers gathered at the foyer leading to the National Assembly chamber, chanting, “Stop the attack on opposition party” and “The president needs to apologize.”
In a closed-door briefing held about 30 minutes after Yoon’s address, the Democratic Party leadership called the investigations of Lee “political persecution and dictatorship.”
“This is an attack on democracy, and the Yoon administration’s attempt to restructure the opposition as it pleases,” a Democratic Party senior representative said, quoting the leadership's remarks during the briefing.
The party claimed there were “circumstances that show the accusations against Lee and his close circles are fabrications.”
“As the party with National Assembly majority, we will be forced to do everything in our power to respond to the situation we unfortunately find ourselves in,” it said.
Seoul prosecutors on Monday made a second attempt to search the Democratic Party headquarters as part of investigations into a high-profile real estate corruption scandal involving Lee, its chair.
The scandal first came to light over the 2021 interpellations by the National Assembly that called into question the private beneficiaries of the real estate project undertaken by Seongnam, a Gyeonggi Province city where Lee served as mayor for eight years until 2018.
In addition to the Democratic Party headquarters being searched, Kim Yong, whom Lee called a “longtime friend” and “almost like my other self,” was arrested over the weekend in a separate investigation. Kim, who is the deputy director of the Democratic Party-run think tank, is accused of receiving some 847 million won to finance Lee’s 2022 presidential campaign.
The Democratic Party, together with the minor opposition Justice Party, also demanded the president apologize for his hot mic moment in New York last month. Yoon was caught saying what sounded like a Korean slang insult as he was allegedly speaking about members of the US Congress.
“The president still has yet to apologize to the National Assembly himself, and more importantly, to the people for using vulgar language while he was on the overseas trip,” Democratic Party Floor Leader Rep. Park Hong-keun told reporters.
“The kind of profanity cannot be tolerated in politics. The president cannot come to the National Assembly and deliver his address like nothing happened. We will not accept it.”
On the boycott, the ruling People Power Party’s interim chair, Rep. Chung Jin-suk, told reporters the Democratic Party was “abusing its majority control in the National Assembly and politicizing criminal justice to defend the criminal allegations facing the party leader.”
“It is regrettable that the Democratic Party chose the path of polarization rather than conversation,” he said. “In my 20 years in politics I have never seen anything like this.”
In denunciation of the investigations, Democratic Party leaders have been staging a series of protests outside the presidential office in Yongsan, central Seoul, as well as at the Board of Audit and Inspection office, with another one planned for Wednesday.