Wednesday, August 20, 2014

South Korea's Dangerous New Dawn

North Korea's decision to expel UN atomic energy inspectors is but another reason to view Roh Moo Hyun's election as South Korea's president two weeks ago as an historical watershed. The beginning of his term not only coincides with one of the most dangerous episodes on the Korean peninsula in decades, but his presidency will also test South Korea's relations with the US to a degree that has not been seen for many years.

Roh's victory over Lee Hoi Chang signifies a generational shift in Korean politics, with the young determined to gain a freer hand in Korea's relations with the US. Indeed, generational differences were the deciding factor in the race, replacing the regional sentiments that dominated every presidential race before this one. According to one report, over 60% of people in their twenties and thirties voted for Roh to produce a margin of 2.3% in this first two-man, head-to-head presidential race in 31 years.

Roh's populist and nationalist stance will be swiftly and sorely tested by reality when he assumes power in February. But couple the generational changeover thaty put him in office with a strong popular desire for continued engagement with North Korea--notwithstanding North Korea's growing nuclear brinkmanship--and the recipe is complete for disputes with the US.

Roh, a self-made man who passed a bar examination without going to college and law school, succeeded in convincing voters that he would usher in a new brand of politics reflecting South Korea's growing wealth and middle class sentiments, thereby sweeping away insider-dominated politics, regional bickering, and factional struggles. His style and rhetoric projected the fresh (for Korea!) image of a common man committed to eliminating the ossified networks of cronyism and corruption.

For the first time in modern Korean history, the presidential campaign actually debated the central issues facing the country, rather than focussing on parties and personalities. Candidate Roh called for a new relationship between South Korea and the US, one based on the principle of independence and equality. For example, he said that he would not kow-tow to the US or visit Washington just for the sake of a photo opportunity He also promised to continue President Kim Dae Jung's "Sunshine policy" of engagement with the North.

Remarkably, Roh won the election despite North Korea's decision to reactivate nuclear reactors that had been frozen since 1994. A few years ago this would have doomed Roh's candidacy. That he overcame this obstacle without changing his stance on engaging North Korea means that times have radically changed. A popular yearning for change, not the security situation, is now the overriding concern of ordinary Koreans.

Roh's campaign also took advantage of a rising tide of anti-Americanism. The acquittal by a US military court of two American soldiers who accidentally killed two Korean schoolgirls with their armored car last June triggered street demonstrations across the country. Although President George W. Bush apologized twice for the deaths of the girls, demands continue to escalate for changing the Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) that governs the legal treatment of American troops stationed in South Korea. Ordinary Koreans insist that US soldiers who commit crimes should be tried in Korean courts.

This expression of wounded national pride was enabled by South Korea's tremendous performance in the World Cup football tournament last summer, which helped convince ordinary Koreans that their country was fully grown up--and thus might be able to stand on its own without the presence of 37,000 US troops. Indeed, many ordinary people now view the US presence, and not North Korea's communist regime, as the biggest obstacle to unification. According to a recent poll, only 54.8% of Koreans now support the stationing of American troops in the country, while 31.7% oppose it.

These sentiments will form part of the diplomatic test shaping Roh's presidency from the start, for he must re-engineer relations with America at the same time that the Bush administration is fretting about North Korea's nuclear ambitions and its role in spreading weapons of mass destruction to rogue states. For now, Korean voters--apparently impervious to the threat that North Korea's nuclear weapons poses--support Roh's policy of maintaining dialogue and economic exchange with the North.

Under President Roh, South Korea's domestic politics and relations with the US and North Korea will require an almost total overhaul. Can he walk the tightrope of maintaining security on the peninsula, keeping America engaged, and retaining the support of the voters who elected him? Reconciling those goals would test even the most experienced and cynical of politicians, so it is anyone's guess as to whether President Roh can succeed. Failure, however, offers such a horrific prospect that no one can possibly hope for it.

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