The Korea Herald


Yoon returns amid tensions over Putin's Pyongyang visit

Back home, president faces possible medical disruption due to doctors' strike this week

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : June 16, 2024 - 12:05

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President Yoon Suk Yeol (third from left) arrives at Seoul Air Base in Gyeonggi Province, Sunday. (Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol (third from left) arrives at Seoul Air Base in Gyeonggi Province, Sunday. (Yonhap)

President Yoon Suk Yeol returned home Sunday after a weeklong trip to three Central Asian countries amid rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula with an imminent summit between the leaders of Russia and North Korea in Pyongyang this week, which has sparked concerns about closer military ties.

Amid reports on Putin's visit to North Korea, the first in 24 years, Yoon's office on Friday officially "confirmed" his visit, stressing that it would closely examine countermeasures to protect Seoul's rights and ensure that the nation's security is not compromised in "any scenario."

Though not confirmed yet, Seoul is also set for vice ministerial dialogue with Beijing -- Pyongyang's longtime ally -- in Seoul to discuss regional security and foreign and defense affairs. The dialogue was announced during a three-way summit of the leaders of South Korea, Japan and China late last month. Such dialogue was previously held in 2013 and 2015 at the working level and was suspended since then after bilateral ties between South Korea and China soured over Seoul's decision to deploy a US missile defense system on its soil.

The two separate but significant events are set to be held amid tensions on the Korean Peninsula again flaring up following a barrage of waste-filled balloons that North Korea across the border. There have been GPS jamming attacks, missile provocations and spy satellite tests over recent weeks. Accordingly, South Korea fully suspended the inter-Korean peace pact and resumed loudspeaker deployment along the border for propaganda.

Yoon appears to be facing a critical juncture this week, as Putin's visit could cause further instability in the region. Speculations have been rising that North Korea is preparing to advance its technology for weapons and satellites with Russia, as well as an expansion in exporting weapon to Moscow in exchange for food and energy. At home, the South Korean leader also faces possible medical disruptions nationwide due to planned doctors' strikes this week.

The office last week highlighted Seoul's coordination with Washington and Tokyo on Putin's visit to monitor any regional instabilities, as enshrined in the Camp David declaration in August 2023. The conservative Yoon administration has shifted away from the previous liberal government's detente and forged stronger ties with the US and Japan to deter North Korea's provocations and missile tests by leaving the bitter past with Tokyo behind.

On Saturday, Yoon said via his Facebook account on the last day of his Central Asia trip that "peace can only be preserved with strong power," as he commemorated the "victory" of the South Korean Navy in a battle against North Korean ships off the Incheon island of Yeonpyeongdo in 1999.

President Yoon Suk Yeol (left) and first lady Kim Keon Hee disembark from the Air Force One at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, Sunday. (Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol (left) and first lady Kim Keon Hee disembark from the Air Force One at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, Sunday. (Yonhap)

Yoon's office also affirmed that all three countries that Yoon visited in the past week -- Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan -- supported the complete denuclearization of North Korea and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula, calling them partners to cooperate in regional security in East Asia.

Yoon's aides also acknowledged the Central Asian countries' own past efforts to ditch nuclear weapons with the aim to achieve regional peace and condemn North Korea's military provocations.

Kim Tae-hyo, first deputy director of the presidential National Security Office, described Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as "exemplary leaders" of the world's nuclear nonproliferation, as he spoke to reporters during Yoon's Central Asia trip.

Kim said Kazakhstan "voluntarily ditched nuclear weapons handed over by the Soviet Union in its independence" while Uzbekistan has "endorsed South Korea's stance toward North Korea with consistency," as seen in Uzbekistan's move to shut down North Korea's Embassy in Uzbekistan after North Korea's torpedo attack that caused the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010.

Meanwhile, recent polls indicated that a majority of South Koreans approve of Yoon's hard-line stance against North Korea's provocations.

A poll Friday by Gallup Korea showed that 55 percent of respondents approved of South Korea's redeployment of loudspeakers on the border with North Korea for the first time in six years on June 9. Only 32 percent of respondents disapproved of the move.

Moreover, 60 percent answered that North Korea's balloon barrages containing leaflets and waste "pose a threat," while 36 percent did not agree.

The same poll indicated that Yoon's job approval rating in the second week of June sharply jumped 5 percentage points to 26 percent, rebounding after the rating hit an all-time low for Yoon the previous week.