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.