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 Thursday, 19 December, 2002, 13:46 GMT
Analysis: Why South Korea's vote counts
Roh Moo-hyun
Roh Moo-hyun favours a softer line on North Korea

South Korea's electoral result has significant international implications given that the country has the world's 13th largest economy and stands on its last Cold War frontier.

In particular, it could affect the United States' policy towards North Korea, one of three states that President George W Bush has called an "axis of evil".

A North Korean soldier (left) looks at a South Korea soldier standing guard on the North-South border, August 2002
The two Koreas remain technically at war
The main candidates articulated different approaches to dealing with North Korea, the world's last unreformed Communist regime.

Lee Hoi-chang of the opposition Grand National Party represented the traditional approach of containment.

The basis of this approach is the maintenance of a close military and political relationship with South Korea's traditional partners, the US and Japan, while making no concessions to bring North Korea to the negotiating table.

Bridging the gulf between Stalinist Pyongyang and the hawkish Bush administration will prove a major challenge for Mr Roh

By contrast, Roh Moo-hyun, candidate of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party, represented the alternative approach pioneered by outgoing President Kim Dae-jung.

His so-called "Sunshine Policy" of constructive engagement made conciliatory gestures, including economic incentives, in the hope of bringing North Korea to the negotiating table.

President Kim was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his efforts.

The high point of this policy was the historic summit between President Kim and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in June 2000, followed by the reunion of relatives separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

Hopes faded

Those dramatic events, however, did not result in the major improvement of inter-Korean relations that many South Koreans hoped for.

The North Korean leader did not pay a reciprocal visit to the South. Neither did the North permit further reunions of separated relatives in significant numbers

South Korean President Kim Dae-jung (right) is embraced by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during a departure ceremony at Pyongyang airport 15 June 2000
High hopes in 2000 have led to disappointment
Even worse, the Sunshine Policy became badly misaligned with the more hawkish US strategy towards North Korea introduced when President Bush came to power in 2001.

Emboldened by the US shift, Mr Lee and the conservative camp accused Kim Dae-jung's government of appeasement by making wholesale economic and political concessions to the North without receiving any tangible concessions in return - notably on human rights, or the North's vast military apparatus.

Events reached a head in November when the US decided to suspend oil shipments to North Korea in response to North Korea's reported admission in October that it had a nuclear weapons programme.

With the nuclear threat as North Korea's sole bargaining counter, sanctions have heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Roh as a middle man

North Korea has already threatened to reactivate the nuclear facilities mothballed under a 1994 Agreement, a move that is sure to bring it into further conflict with the US.

However, in contrast to Iraq, North Korea's alliance with China and the US preoccupation with the Middle East, means that US military action on the Korean peninsula is highly impractical.

The US has already shown great irritation with President Kim Dae-jung's persistence with the Sunshine Policy

Given his preference for maintaining constructive engagement with North Korea, Roh Moo-hyun is likely to be a force for moderation and dialogue.

His presidency may frustrate US efforts to co-ordinate a policy of tougher punitive sanctions against North Korea, which in a shrewd move, recently improved relations with Japan, the US' other great strategic partner in Asia.

Bridging the gulf between Stalinist Pyongyang and the hawkish Bush administration will prove a major challenge for Mr Roh.

The US has already shown great irritation with President Kim Dae-jung's persistence with the Sunshine Policy and with his unwillingness to take a tougher stance towards North Korea.

With the absence of breakthroughs after the 2000 summit, it is easy to overlook the concrete but subtle changes in North Korea's relationship with the world over the past five years.

During those years, North Korea has established diplomatic relations with all European Union countries. It is on the brink of doing so with Japan.

And it has formally accepted the need for Chinese-style economic reforms.

With the South Korean economy much stronger and significantly restructured since he took power in February 1998, President Kim, despite being blighted by post-summit disappointment and by political scandal, has left promising foundations for his successor to build upon.

But Mr Roh must first break the deadlock between Pyongyang and Washington.

If he succeeds, 2003 may be significant not only for the 50th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, but also as the beginning of the end of the world's last Cold War standoff.

Dr Tat Yan Kong is Lecturer (Assistant Professor) of Political Science at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.


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