Korean vote may test ties with US

Incoming president Roh Moo-hyun opposes a tough line with North Korea.

On Thursday, South Korean voters, surging on a wave of youthful nationalist and anti-US feeling, narrowly elected a former labor lawyer, Roh Moo-hyun, to lead their country. It was a clear blow to White House hopes for a government more sympathetic to American troops and tough US policies on North Korea's recent nuclear threats.

Mr. Roh - who came to national prominence as a hard hitting interrogator of government officials in 1988, but who has no national experience - defeated Lee Hoi-chang, a former Supreme Court justice and leader of a pro-US "old guard" party. The outcome was unclear until last night, when a mostly under-40 crowded danced and shouted and carried yellow balloons through the streets of this city.

While Mr. Lee campaigned on the need to scrap the Sunshine Policy of engagement with the North, Roh aligned himself with the view that tough US policies are causing tension and potential strife in Korea.

Roh will lead for one five-year term a country that now exists in a curious interregnum between its aspirations to be a star independent player in Asia and a set of sobering unresolved realities. Among those: Korea's protection from the fifth largest army in the world is still provided by a $5 billion annual US military deployment.

Also, as the election itself shows, the country is deeply divided over basic national questions about its identity, about the US and the North, and between a generation that remembers the Korean war and a high-tech cell- phone carrying "Internet" generation that has watched Korea mature into one of the world's top 10 economies.

Roh has said little in recent weeks about the North's nuclear program. Last week, in a comment to reporters, he said he lacked "clear evidence that they [North Korea] is developing a nuclear weapon."

One senior Western official hopes Roh's views on the North will change. "I think he will begin to see a different level of security briefing, now that he is in office," the official commented.

How Roh will actually approach the US once in office is also unknown, and he has yet to announce his international policy team.

"He must stabilize relations with the US and at the same time manage a nuclear crisis similar to the one faced in 1993," says Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation in Seoul, referring to North Korea's recent admission of a secret nuclear program. "Roh's challenge will be to gain the confidence and trust of the US, try to equalize Korea's relations with the US. And he's dealing with some internal skepticism about this in the White House."

Some Korean commentators say major changes are coming. "With Roh elected, we may have a massive problem with the US," says Shim Jae-hoon, a well-known analyst and writer. "Roh has said he will review the structure of relations with the US dating to 50 years ago. Koreans do want that. But whereas Lee wanted to review in a positive way, Roh wants a critical review. I worry that the younger generation he represents doesn't understand our overseas obligations."

Momentum toward Roh's victory increased three weeks ago when his campaign was joined by Chung Moon-joon, a celebrity candidate who became popular as Korean head of the World Cup soccer matches held here last summer, and after an outpouring of anti-US feeling following the acquittal in US military court of two US servicemen who accidentally ran over two schoolgirls with a tank.

Roh's victory came despite an 11th hour withdrawal of support by Chung - reportedly over an anti-US comment by Roh in the final hours of campaign speeches Wednesday.

Some 37,000 US troops are spread over a score of bases in South Korea. During the elections, and following the largest-ever anti-US rally in Seoul last week, the troops were under a 5 p.m. curfew to be on base.

During a 1993 nuclear crisis, the Clinton administration ordered plans for a military "surgical" strike on a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon - after international inspectors, using new state-of-the-art detection mechanisms, discovered traces of nuclear weapons-grade plutonium at the reactor site. The North had said it was not processing the plutonium.

Whether the Clinton team ever intended to use military force is questionable, insiders say. But the crisis was real, leading to a major "Agreed Framework" treaty that held until this fall, when the North's leader, Kim Jong Il, admitted he had a second and secret nuclear program to enrich uranium.

In the interim, however, and partly as a result of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, Kim Dae Jung was elected to a five-year term. The outgoing Mr. Kim, a leading labor and human rights figure, is a charismatic and brilliant politician whose life was spared in the late 1970s by intervention of an American diplomat. He had often been the butt of jokes since he ran for president in every election, but rarely scored well. Once in office, Kim immediately began sending out feelers toward the North. He hoped that a post cold-war atmosphere, a horrific famine in the North, and a sympathetic Clinton White House would bring Kim Jong Il to the table for historic talks about reconciliation and lead to the dream of all Koreans - unity of North and South. The result was a trip by Kim to Pyongyang and a "Sunshine Policy" of patient negotiations and investment in North Korea. It all earned Kim a Nobel Prize.

Roh has said he will continue to support the Sunshine Policy - though many in Korea and abroad feel it has proven to be a failure, and the White House referred to the North as an "axis of evil."

Last week Kim Jong Il stated he would restart the Yongbyon reactor, and demanded to unseal plutonium rods used to make nuclear weapons.

"The North has nothing to bargain with but threats," says Mr. Snyder. "I hope they don't miscalculate."

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