Cause for Felicitation in Korea


Dec 25, 2002

By Gregory F. Treverton and Spencer Kim

This commentary originally appeared in Korea Herald on December 25, 2002.

The hasty commentary holds that South Korea's election of the governing party candidate, Roh Moo-hyun, as president bodes for difficult times in Korean-U.S. relations. That commentary is precisely wrong. Korea's election is cause for congratulations, most of all to the Koreans themselves. President-elect Roh is a rare man of principle who has a chance to reshape the country's crony-ridden economic and political system. He is hardly the anti-American he has been painted out to be. South Korea under him can be a real partner for the United States. But Washington will have to treat Seoul as a real partner, not merely a reflex follower.

All politics is local, as Tip O'Neill taught us, so the most important consequences are for South Korea itself. His election breaks through the regionalism that has dominated Korean politics. He lost in his native southeast but won in other regions around the country. Roh's election is the opportunity for a real changing of the guard. It puts an end to the era of the "three Kims"—three men in their 70s, including the sitting president, Kim Dae-jung, who have dominated Korean politics for a generation. A generation younger than his Nobel Prize-winning predecessor, Roh becomes a president less burdened by the lifetime of deals, compromises and secret money that hung over all his predecessors, even Kim. His life story is a Hollywood story, but with principle added. A poor boy, he became a self-taught lawyer, then left a lucrative practice to do labor law. His wife's father, a blind man, died in jail, convicted by the military government as a communist.

His predecessors became president, if not through the raw power of the military, then through elaborate deals among factions and politicians. Roh also has less of that baggage. Ironically, his eleventh-hour loss of support from his ally, Chung Mong-joon, the scion of the Hyundai empire, may have helped, not hurt, by underscoring his image of independence. His election hardly guarantees an end to the regionalism, paternalism and cronyism of Korean politics, but it does open an opportunity.

Roh does not know the United States well but is hardly anti-American. It is true that policy toward North Korea was a major campaign issue. Roh's conservative opponent, Lee Hoi-chang, employed familiar tactics, brandishing the North Korean threat and using "we have to stay with Washington" as a stick. The tactics failed this time. In any case, the campaign probably exaggerated differences over policy toward the North. Any South Korean government will want to keep lines out to North Korea, and, given that Seoul is within artillery range of North Korea, any government will shy away from confrontation that could slide toward war.

What was visible during the campaign is probably better described as rising national pride than anti-Americanism. In that perspective, the alliance with the United States looks very asymmetrical, more appropriate to the 1950s than now. An American still would command Korean forces in wartime, and the Status of Forces Agreement for U.S. troops seems less than equal to those the United States has with other nations, Japan in particular.

Korea will continue to be a partner of the United States, but it will want to be a real partner. It will want its voice to be heard, and listened to, not just over policy toward North Korea, but on China and Japan and missile defense as well. Will it be more difficult to deal with than a Lee government would have been? Perhaps. But the United States can have a real partner if it is prepared to treat Korea as one.

Gregory Treverton and Spencer Kim led a task force on Korea for the Pacific Council on International Policy, a Los Angeles-based international leadership forum. Their report, "The Reshaping of Korea," is available at Treverton is a senior policy analyst at RAND; Kim is a California business leader active in local and international civil affairs.

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