North Korea

Realist Lee to bring new era of pragmatism

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 February, 2008, 12:00am


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South Korean president-elect to be firm but friendly with North

A new era of pragmatism is set to unfold in South Korea today with President Lee Myung-bak's inauguration.

Just as North Korea will likely define the success or failure of his five-year term, it is already highlighting the hard-headed approach of the former construction company boss and dynamic Seoul mayor.

Seoul officials have confirmed that Mr Lee had started revamping South Korea's spy agency, demanding greater use of agents to get a better understanding of North Korea on the ground and the extent of its nuclear operations. Contingency plans for responding to a collapse of the Stalinist hermit state - one of South Korea's worst fears - are also being updated, according to government sources in Seoul.

'Of course Mr Lee wants to find a way of working with Pyongyang, but he is not blind to the need of preparing for the worst,' a government official said. 'We can't be blinded by promises and rhetoric ... we have to develop a much better sense of what is going on.'

Mr Lee's long-term visions for North Korea and the wider region will be outlined today in his inaugural address. He is expected to confirm his election pledges to tie future aid to Pyongyang to its commitments to denuclearise, a marked shift from the pro-engagement policies of his predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun.

Mr Roh secured a historic second meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in October but left office amid backsliding from Pyongyang in meeting its vows to denuclearise under the six-nation deal.

Mr Lee is expected to outline a tighter rein over South Korea's Unification Ministry and closer scrutiny of spending under the Inter-Korean Co-operation Fund. Upcoming negotiations with the North over annual gifts of grain will give an early indication of his tougher approach.

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are set to attend, and both are expected to welcome a tougher line with the North. While US President George W. Bush is eager to achieve progress in the last months of his eight-year rule, Washington is showing little interest in fresh compromises over the six-party deal. It promises a new era of peace and diplomatic engagement tied to steps towards full and verifiable dismantlement of the North's nuclear weapons and programmes.

The presence of the Japanese and US guests underscore another plank of Mr Lee's approach - the desire to shore up South Korea's traditional relationship. Despite recent troubles stemming from the behaviour of stationed American troops, the military alliance with Washington is one of the strongest in the region and a core part of the US' continuing projection of itself as the dominant force in the Asia-Pacific region.

At the same time, Mr Lee has repeatedly vowed to build on his predecessor's moves to broaden and deepen ties with China - further signs of pragmatism that are expected to surface in his address as he reaches out to Beijing and Washington.

His team has been working behind the scenes to secure a solid early working relationship with Chinese envoys across trade and investment.

Mr Lee is also widely expected to make the economy a core part of his speech and early leadership, pledging freer markets and efforts to boost job creation and improve education.

Securing new sources of investment and growth will be vital to meeting his '747' campaign pledge of achieving 7 per cent annual growth, per capita income of US$40,000 and making South Korea the world's seventh largest economy over the next decade.