Election a wake-up call for Washington

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 December, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 December, 2002, 12:00am

It is not surprising that every new election in South Korea's young democracy brings fresh lessons.

Thursday's presidential vote was a cliff-hanger to the end. The eventual winner, Roh Moo-hyun, lost a key political ally on the eve of the poll.

The reason popular soccer chief Chung Mong-joon gave for withdrawing his support was Mr Roh's increasingly fierce anti-Washington rhetoric, particularly the claim that South Korea may have to intervene to prevent a war between North Korea and the US.

It was merely the latest jibe from a leader who is a keen proponent of the 'sunshine' engagement with Pyongyang pioneered by his predecessor Kim Dae-jung.

Anti-American sentiment had been reaching fever pitch across South Korea in the lead-up to the poll, with commentators providing an array of reasons why the old ally should be proving so recalcitrant.

Many younger South Koreans drew considerable hope from the now threatened sunshine policy and were less than happy at US President George W. Bush's grouping of North Korea among his self-described 'axis of evil'.

Mr Roh certainly showed himself to be abreast of the popular mood as he rode the anti-US tide.

Better than most, Washington knows not to listen too closely to what is said during election campaigns. Ironically, it is often political heat that is the sign of a functioning democracy.

Predictably Mr Roh offered an olive branch to the US within hours of his acceptance speech and Washington also offered words of conciliation.

It is widely hoped that can continue in the weeks and months ahead as a solution is found to ease the tensions that have followed Pyongyang's recent admissions that it is still running a nuclear programme. Only the most expansive and co-operative relationship between Seoul and Washington can help forge a way forward for the benefit of the wider region - a process that undoubtedly also involves Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow.

For all that, it is hoped, too, that Washington has seen the election as something of a sharp awakening.

Following the recent German example, Mr Roh found an all-too-willing audience.

It is clear not all US allies are particularly happy with the way the Bush regime has thrown its weight around internationally.

It is hard to see what more evidence is needed to show Washington that it should take greater steps to reach out and embrace its closest friends in the formation of foreign policy, whatever the pressures of the war on terrorism. Handled right, Mr Roh could prove a willing and powerful ally in the drive to bring North Korea to heel.