Promising new start for South Korea

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 December, 2007, 12:00am
 

The landslide presidential victory of conservative Lee Myung-bak is good news for South Korea, for the United States, for their alliance and - if responded to appropriately and wisely - for North Korea as well.

Mr Lee has made it clear that he is committed to improving North-South relations, but that progress along this front first requires Pyongyang to live up to its denuclearisation promises. This is a positive message that reinforces both the flexibility and firmness contained in Washington's current approach towards Pyongyang. It will bring Washington and Seoul closer than they have been for several years, both in terms of dealing with the North and in terms of the alliance itself.

While Mr Lee and his Grand National Party (GNP) are more conservative than incumbent President Roh Moo-hyun's 'progressive' administration, they are not your father's conservatives. The more hardline position, represented in the election by former GNP leader Lee Hoi-chang, scored poorly. It finished a distant third behind Lee Myung-bak and the United New Democratic Party's Chung Dong-young - Mr Roh's former minister of reunification who was, in the eyes of many, overly conciliatory towards the North.

It is hard to imagine Mr Chung or Mr Roh really playing hardball with the North, regardless of its transgressions. By contrast, president-elect Lee has said 'full-fledged economic exchanges can start after North Korea dismantles its nuclear weapons'. While Mr Roh paid lip service to the concept of reciprocity, Lee Myung-bak seems more serious about expecting it, while remaining clearly committed to the positive aspects of North-South engagement that South Koreans have come to expect and demand.

Lee Hoi-chang, at the other extreme, seemed more comfortable with the school of international diplomacy favoured by America's former UN ambassador, John Bolton, which sees confrontational politics and ultimate regime change in the North as the only viable option.

No doubt, some in Washington will see a conservative victory as an opportunity to revert to the more confrontational - and largely ineffective - policies of the past; this would be a huge mistake. Of course, Pyongyang may leave Washington and Seoul with no other option, if it continues to drag its feet on making a complete declaration of its nuclear programmes and holdings.

The new administration takes the reins in Seoul on February 25, and Pyongyang will be presented with several options. It could revert to form and drag its feet on the denuclearisation process, thus forcing the new president (and the Bush administration) into a more hardline position. Or it could produce a comprehensive list of its nuclear programmes and holdings - locking in the denuclearisation process and the firm, yet flexible and fair, approach that Mr Lee and the Bush administration currently seem to prefer. One hopes Pyongyang makes the right choice.

Ralph A. Cossa is president of Pacific Forum CSIS. Distributed by Pacific Forum CSIS

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