Roh Moo-hyun

New President Brings Prospect of New Relationship

March 2, 2003


SEOUL, South Korea -- As a young political activist decades ago, Roh Moo-hyun called for U.S. troops to go home. As a presidential candidate last year, he vowed not to kowtow to Washington and said he would try to "re-balance" the relationship. As president-elect, he visited the U.S. military headquarters in central Seoul and said U.S. troops were necessary to peace and stability.

Now, less than a week after his inauguration as South Korea's ninth president, the big question about Roh (pronounced "No") is whether his views towards the United States will continue to evolve.

Roh rode a tide of anti-American sentiment and was elected by a 2 percent margin last December. The 56-year-old former human rights and labor lawyer started to distance himself from the anti-Americanism soon after the election, saying he fully valued the alliance with the United States, Seoul's most important ally and trading partner.

But on the important question of North Korea's nuclear threat, substantial differences with the United States remain.

"I am quite concerned because for the first time in 50 years, there seems to be a wide perception gap on the North Korea threat and how we're going to manage the U.S.-South Korea alliance," said Lee Chungmin, professor in the graduate school of international studies at Yonsei University. "We're all hoping he'll be much more of a pragmatist rather than an ideologue or Korean nationalist."

Despite his reassuring statements, Roh faces a tough challenge to demonstrate that his policy to engage and cooperate with North Korea will result in a peaceful resolution of the nuclear standoff.

There is a "real gap in trust between Washington and Seoul," said Moon Jeong-in, a professor of political science at Yonsei University who visited Washington in early February as one of Roh's special envoys, dispatched to ease anxieties about the new president.

Roh is different from many in South Korea's political elite. He has never visited the United States and has no relatives living there. He never went to college, has little experience in government and even less in foreign policy. Many of those appointed to the presidential secretariat, his inner circle, are former student activists and radicals.

Roh comes to office facing high expectations from the South Korean public. A government poll last week of 1,029 adults found 93 percent of respondents were confident the new administration would do well, according to the Yonhap news agency.

He has promised to attack corruption, gender inequality and regional imbalances. In his inaugural address, he laid out a vision to transform South Korea into a financial hub for northeast Asia and to make his government more accessible to the people. He is re-arranging the layout of the presidential Blue House, decreasing the size of his office by two-thirds and moving some of his senior advisers closer to him, and plans to widen the scope of media organizations allowed accreditation to the Blue House.

"What we are seeing in Korea today is the birth of a new government, a young leadership, fairly untested in the policy world," said Lee. "I believe, cumulatively speaking, they have a very, very naive view of how the world is run. There will be consequences of mismanaging not only North-South relations, but also the U.S.-(South Korea) alliance. Those consequences may come back to haunt us in the next several years or months."

But Lho Kyongsoo, professor of international politics at Seoul National University, said that although Roh "still doesn't know enough about the complexities of the world," he is learning quickly and adjusting accordingly.

"Whatever perceptions of differences between Washington and Seoul that resulted from the campaign for the presidency will be resolved earlier rather than later," said Lho. "He's a flexible thinker."

To be sure, much of the mistrust between Washington and Seoul started under the previous administration of Kim Dae-jung. Moon said South Korea was hurt that the United States made important decisions "without full consultation."

When Kim visited President Bush in March 2001, the first Asian leader to do so, he expected at least tacit support for his "sunshine policy" of engaging North Korea. Instead, Bush called North Korea untrustworthy. The declaration was viewed by many South Koreans as a slap in the face.

Assemblyman Jay Yoo, who accompanied Kim on the trip, said Kim should not have talked about President Clinton, who, just months earlier, was working towards normalizing relations with Pyongyang and even considered making a diplomatic visit there.

"Kim Dae-jung kept talking about Clinton's ideas," he said. "That was a mistake."

South Korea was also shocked by Bush's "axis of evil" remark a year later and alarmed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's statement that the United States is capable of fighting two wars at once, referring to Iraq and North Korea. Roh has conveyed his desire to U.S. officials for greater prior consultation.

Like his predecessor, Roh wants to pursue inter-Korean cooperation and ultimately replace the current armistice agreement with North Korea, which ended the 1950-53 Korean War, with a declaration of peace. He has ruled out a military attack, while Washington now maintains that all options are on the table.

The opposition Grand National Party, which controls parliament, wants to see a tougher stance towards the North Korean regime, similar to Washington's hardline attitude. Because Roh emphasizes engagement and has renounced the use of force, his critics worry that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il will use the opportunity to drag out dialogue while proceeding to develop nuclear weapons.

"That makes me worry because Kim Jong Il will definitely utilize this kind of easy-going attitude of South Korea to earn more time, to make more bombs or threats while the North Korean people still starve to death," said Assemblyman Cho Woong-kyu, vice-chair of the international relations committee.

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