New South Korean President Lee Myung Bak will pursue a “pragmatic” foreign policy that will seek to rebuild ties with the United States and Japan while taking a “carrot-and-stick” approach to North Korea, journalists from South Korea told a symposium held in Tokyo just before his inauguration.

Lee took over from Roh Moo Hyun on Feb. 25 as South Korea’s 17th president, bringing a conservative administration to the country after a decade of liberal rule by Roh and his predecessor, Kim Dae Jung.

Six veteran journalists from South Korean newspapers discussed the prospects of Lee’s diplomatic and economic policies during a symposium organized Feb. 22 by Keizai Koho Center.

Lee Jin Nyong, an editorial writer of The Dong-a Ilbo, termed the regional diplomacy under Roh a “failure” in that he could not achieve any of his major goals.

Roh’s foreign policy, he said, was heavily influenced by his own interpretation of the region’s “power game” in which, he believed, South Korea was incorporated into the camp led by the U.S. and Japan while North Korea was part of the forces led by China and Russia — as in the Cold War era.

Roh’s 2005 “Northeast Asia balancer” initiative — in which the president said South Korea should take a more neutral position among the regional powers — was in fact a reflection of his desire for Seoul to move closer to China and Russia, he noted.

Behind such a position were the anti-U.S. and anti-Japanese feelings that flared up in the country during Roh’s rule, and the president distanced himself from Washington and took a very aggressive stance toward Japan, Lee said. These policies not only strained South Korea’s ties with the U.S. and Japan but also achieved little in terms of its relations with China and Russia, he added.

Meanwhile, Roh’s North Korea policy — which was essentially a continuation of Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine” policy — did indeed expand North-South contacts as Seoul offered economic aid and cooperation, he said.

However, the policy can hardly be called a success given that North Korea, while receiving lavish aid from Seoul, steadily pursued its nuclear program until it finally held its first nuclear test in October 2006, he pointed out.

The administrations of Roh and Kim provided a total of $10 billion in aid to the North — 10 times as large as the aid offered by Kim’s predecessor, Kim Young Sam, he said.

How will things change under Lee Myung Bak?

The new president believes that improved Seoul-Washington ties will be the key to resolving the North Korean nuclear problem, Lee said, noting that South Korea will move to rebuild the alliance with the U.S. and keep a united front with Washington in the policy toward the North.

President Lee has advocated “flexible and reciprocal” relations with North Korea — an indication that Seoul would no longer offer unilateral aid but link economic cooperation to progress in Pyongyang giving up its nuclear program and opening up the reclusive state to the rest of the world, he said.

Such a policy, the journalist said, will likely mean a bumpy road ahead for some time in Seoul-Pyongyang relations because North Korea still considers its nuclear program as key to the survival of the regime of its leader Kim Jong Il.

Despite its commitment under the six-party talks, North Korea has delayed the promised declaration of its nuclear programs partly because it wants to wait and see what specific policies the Lee administration would take toward Pyongyang, he said, adding that North may even resort to minor provocative acts to “test” the new South Korean leader.