A victory for Korean nationalism?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 April, 2004, 12:00am

In a historic election, the Uri Party has won an absolute majority in South Korea's National Assembly, marking the first time that liberal forces have controlled the parliament; they now hold both the legislative and executive branches. This is a seminal moment in the nation's domestic politics, but its impact on foreign policy is far less certain. In most cases, Seoul's policies will continue as before; President Roh Moo-hyun remains the key foreign policy decision-maker. Tension can be expected, however, if North Korea misreads the situation and attempts to exploit these developments to its advantage.

In Thursday's parliamentary ballot, the Uri Party rode a tide of popular discontent with the two main parties in South Korea, the conservative Grand National Party (which had a majority in the assembly) and the liberal Millennium Democratic Party (from which the Uri Party split), to win 152 seats in the 299-seat assembly. Anger at corruption, collusion between the worlds of business and politics, political gridlock and an attempt to impeach Mr Roh drove voters to the Uri Party and to give the president a vote of confidence.

The election's impact is necessarily speculative. The Uri Party was formed just five months ago. While it is considered progressive, and more sympathetic to North Korea, it is a grab bag of politicians who hold a range of views and policy priorities. Claiming power is likely to moderate its more extreme voices as the party is now responsible for policy. Mr Roh is a case in point: He rode a wave of anti-Americanism into office 18 months ago, but fears that his administration would radically shift foreign policy have subsided.

Mr Roh has said that he wants South Korea to adopt a 'more self-reliant defence policy'. While the exact meaning is unclear, there is no indication that it signals the end of the alliance with the US or a desire to go it alone. Mr Roh understands that the US military presence promotes deterrence and regional stability, both cornerstones of peace in Northeast Asia. He has said that he will not withdraw his forces that have been deployed to Iraq and will proceed to dispatch nearly 3,000 more, as planned.

Even though Uri Party members, like many young South Koreans, do not much fear Pyongyang, there is likely to be little change in Seoul's position in the six-party talks over the North Korean nuclear crisis. South Korea will continue to co-ordinate its position with the US and Japan; the three governments remain committed to 'complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament' of the North Korean nuclear programme. Within that coalition, Seoul has taken the 'softest' position, leading the way on providing inducements. That is likely to continue.

North Korea may assume differently, however. During the election campaign, it mobilised its networks within the South to support the Uri Party, and it may demand more from Seoul as 'its due'. Expect a hardening of the North's position in the six-party talks, more appeals to pan-Korean nationalism and more attempts to extract economic assistance from the South.

The anti-American sentiment found in younger South Koreans may encourage Uri Party supporters to look more favourably on China, but thickening economic links between the two are likely to be more important. At the same time, their growing nationalism ensures that disputes over historical legacies, such as the Goguryeo kingdom claimed by both China and the two Koreas, will moderate their affinity for their giant neighbour.

Recent events in South Korea are part of a transformation that is occurring throughout Northeast Asia. Those changes interact, creating entirely new possibilities for the region. Creative and flexible thinking is essential as governments try to navigate these uncharted waters.

Brad Glosserman is director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think-tank