South Korea continues its impressive transition to genuine democracy this week with the inauguration of Mr. Roh Moo Hyun as the country’s 16th president. Mr. Roh could be a pivotal figure in South Korean history, perhaps even more significant than the man who preceded him, Mr. Kim Dae Jung. If the new president follows through on his campaign pledges, he could transform his country, and position it to play a leading role in regional affairs. He faces formidable obstacles, however, and Mr. Roh will need both luck and skill to succeed.
Mr. Roh points to Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president, as his hero; one-third of the government pamphlet describing the new president is devoted to “his encounter with Lincoln.” He credits Lincoln for his vision and his humanity, his willingness to transcend politics and his commitment to progress and bettering the lives of the people. The two men also share a simple background — Mr. Roh had to get a scholarship to go to college — and a poor record in politics. Lincoln lost more elections than he won; Mr. Roh has run in six elections since 1998, and lost four of them. His only government experience was a seven-month term as minister of maritime affairs and fisheries in 2000.
Some would say that record puts him on equal footing with his predecessor, Mr. Kim. While the former president lost several campaigns for president, he was also a veteran of national politics. Like Mr. Kim, Mr. Roh is a human rights activist, but he does not have Mr. Kim’s network and contacts. That cuts two ways. On one hand, he will not have accumulated the personal debts that opened the Kim administration to charges of cronyism. That could help him overcome the regionalism that handicaps South Korean domestic politics. On the other hand, it means the new administration may not have even the limited experience accumulated by the Kim team, the first opposition government in South Korea’s postwar history.
Mr. Roh will need all the help he can get. He won the presidency with a slim 2 percent margin, and his party is a minority in the legislature. His support of trade unions has alarmed business leaders; his campaigning on a platform of stepped-up domestic reform did little to assuage their fears. The new president wants to check the power of the “chaebol,” South Korea’s industrial conglomerates, but he has stressed that he wants to work firmly within a market-based economic system. Most business analysts agree that reform is needed and that the Kim government started strong but did not do enough. A successful economic transformation will enable South Korea to assume the role of a Northeast Asian economic hub, which Mr. Roh envisions as the center of regional affairs.
The new president faces equally formidable international challenges, the first being relations with North Korea. Mr. Roh has pledged to continue the “sunshine policy,” which endorses engagement with the North, under the new name “peace and prosperity policy.” He has repeated his belief that only dialogue and reconciliation can move Korean relations forward. Unfortunately, progress depends on cooperation from the North and the news that Pyongyang greeted the new president’s inauguration with a missile test is confirmation that North Korea will remain as inscrutable and uncooperative as in the past.
The second key challenge, which is related to the first, is relations with the United States. U.S-South Korea relations are at a low point. There appears to be little trust between the two governments. Both feel that the other is undermining its policies toward the North. Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Roh has never been to the U.S. He concedes that he wants a more balanced relationship with Washington, and has pledged not to kowtow to the U.S. conscience. After his election win, though, Mr. Roh visited the joint command of the U.S.-ROK forces and declared his support for the alliance.
It will take considerably more to calm fears of a widening U.S.-South Korea gap. North Korea will do its best to exploit any differences in opinion and will certainly take advantage of the new administration’s inexperience. Mr. Roh and his team face a steep learning curve with little allowance for error.
Equally important for the new president will be forging stronger relations with Korea’s neighbors. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s presence at Mr. Roh’s inauguration attests to the significance Mr. Koizumi attaches to relations with South Korea. The new president will continue the “forward-looking” relationship with Japan, sought by his predecessor. Similarly, Mr. Roh will have to work closely with China to help stabilize the Korean Peninsula and try to exert pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear-weapons program. A nuclear Peninsula would short-circuit Mr. Roh’s designs to turn his country into the hub of Northeast Asia.
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