The election of Mr. Roh Moo Hyun as South Korea’s next president promises continuity in Seoul. His victory is a triumph for departing President Kim Dae Jung, who launched Mr. Roh’s Grand Millennium Party and inaugurated many of the policies that Mr. Roh inherits. Mr. Roh’s pledge to continue Mr. Kim’s “sunshine policy” of engagement with North Korea must be gratifying.
Unfortunately, continuity also threatens to increase strains between Seoul and Washington, which is taking a harder line against the North. A rift will have repercussions for regional security and stability. The need for coordination of policy between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo has never been more urgent.
Mr. Roh, a former human rights lawyer, defeated opposition candidate Lee Hoi Chang in a hard-fought race. The key issue in the campaign was policy toward the North. Mr. Lee, who has lost two consecutive presidential ballots and has said that he will now retire from politics, was critical of the sunshine policy and, like Washington, favored a harder approach to Pyongyang.
The focus on North-South relations meant that Seoul’s relations with Washington were also an issue. While affirming his commitment to the alliance, Mr. Roh promised to establish a more “equal” relationship with the United States. Mr. Lee’s team played up the possibility of a split between the two allies if Mr. Roh was elected. Ties to the U.S. were also scrutinized as the result of an accident in which a U.S. military vehicle struck and killed two South Korean schoolgirls. The acquittal of the servicemen operating the vehicle sparked protests that brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets and focused national attention on the two allies’ relationship.
The day before the vote, U.S.-South Korean relations triggered a crisis for Mr. Roh when he implied while campaigning that South Korea should stay out of any conflict between the U.S. and North Korea. Those remarks shocked his coalition partner, Mr. Chung Mong Joon, the head of South Korea’s World Cup organization and a former rival whose support was thought critical to Mr. Roh’s prospects. Mr. Chung promptly terminated their alliance and many thought Mr. Lee’s victory was at hand. Instead, Mr. Roh prevailed. With 99 percent of votes counted, Mr. Roh had 48.9 percent and Mr. Lee 46.6 percent. Surprisingly, turnout among the nation’s 35 million eligible voters was 70.2 percent, an 11 percent drop from the previous ballot in 1997.
After winning, Mr. Roh made the ritual pledges to bridge the gap between his supporters and those of Mr. Lee, and to govern on behalf of all South Koreans. Advisers said that he will reassure U.S. President George W. Bush that he is a strong supporter of the alliance and that calls for a more equal relationship will not jeopardize the bilateral relationship.
While Mr. Roh has said that he is not anti-American, he has accused previous South Korean presidents of groveling before the U.S. Unlike his predecessors, he has neither visited the U.S. nor speaks English. While political reality may push him closer to the center and soften some of his views, his skepticism about U.S. policy is plain. Many other South Koreans see the U.S. military presence in their country — 37,000 troops — as an obstacle to Korean unification, a view that Pyongyang would like to encourage. The key question for U.S.-South Korea relations is whether Mr. Roh will play that populist card.
The pursuit of engagement at all costs will put South Korea at odds with the U.S. — and Japan. At the Security Consultative Committee meeting that was held earlier this week, Japan and the U.S. agreed to take a hard line against the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons and missile proliferation, and called on Pyongyang to release the families of the five abductees who are in Japan. Tokyo’s insistence that those families be reunited before normalization talks can proceed runs counter to Mr. Roh’s call for dialogue at every opportunity. Here, too, there is concern that Mr. Roh — drawing on South Korean anger at Japan — could blame Tokyo for intransigence rather than Pyongyang.
Mr. Roh will quickly discover that governing is harder than campaigning. While he controls the Blue House, the opposition Grand National Party has a majority in Parliament. Mr. Roh has little experience in government. He won a seat in the National Assembly in 1988 and had a short stint as head of the Fisheries Ministry during the first Kim Dae Jung administration. While that allowed him to run as a political outsider, it means that he will have to rely on others to run his government. As Mr. Kim learned, that can be dangerous. His promises to “clean up” politics came back to haunt him as scandals repeatedly surfaced during his term in office and stripped him of his authority and much of the credit he deserved. It is a lesson Mr. Roh needs to absorb. Unfortunately, North Korea’s behavior and the prospect of another South Korean economic downturn mean that he has little time to study.
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