South Korea's President Lee Myung Bak appears to have won the support he needs to pursue economic reforms and a tougher line toward North Korea, after his Grand National Party won a majority in a National Assembly previously controlled by outspoken foes of his conservative policies.
"He's getting the vote of confidence he needs," says Park Nei Hei, an economics professor and consultant with the Boston Consulting Group. "He's getting Korean sentiment behind him."
The elections strengthened Mr. Lee's position as he prepares to fly to Washington next week for his first meeting with President Bush since winning the presidency in December, when he defeated by a landslide a leftist candidate backed by a government with very different views on economic problems and North Korea.
Mr. Park predicts that "MB," as Lee is often referred to in headlines and conversations, "will not have any problem doing what he has to do emphasizing the growth of the economy and loosening up regulations."
Lee also is expected to try to reach an understanding with Mr. Bush on how to deal with North Korea after a series of rhetorical attacks in which the North has denounced him as a "traitor" and threatened to reduce South Korea "to ashes."
Conservatives from Mr. Lee's party captured more than half the 299 assembly seats, while candidates from two smaller parties added another 30 seats to the conservative total.
One of the president's political allies running for office, Chung Mong Joon, one of Korea's wealthiest men, defeated Chung Dong Young, whom Lee had trounced in the presidential election in December. Chung Mong Joon inherited his controlling stake in Hyundai Heavy Industries, the world's largest shipbuilder, from his father Chung Ju Yung, founder of the Hyundai empire.
Conservatives dominated every region except the southwest, the springboard of the rise to power of former president Kim Dae Jung, who initiated Korea's Sunshine policy of reconciliation with North Korea during his term from 1998 to 2002.
Candidates had to battle apathy among voters, who had long expected conservatives to take over the assembly. Only about 44 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots one day after crucial talks in Singapore between US nuclear envoy Christopher Hill and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye Gwan.
Mr. Hill, in Beijing, said he and Mr. Kim had made "definite progress" but still had "a lot of work to do" and had achieved no "major breakthrough." China's envoy, Wu Dawei, who has hosted six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program, warned not to expect any movement for several months.
Those comments contradicted a North Korean spokesman quoted by Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency as saying Hill and Kim had formed a "declaration" in which North Korea would list its nuclear program in exchange for "political compensation." That term is was widely assumed to refer to removal from the US list of nations sponsoring terrorism and lifting of economic sanctions, as long demanded by North Korea.
Analysts believe Mr. Lee must now decide whether to support what is widely viewed here as a compromise on the original agreement, reached last year, in which North Korea was to itemize its nuclear program by the end of December.
Hill and Kim are believed to have discussed a formula under which North Korea acknowledges the truth of a secret memorandum that cites the existence of a program for developing warheads with enriched uranium. North Korea would also acknowledge a passage in the memorandum stating it had provided technology and aid for Syria's nuclear program – including a complex bombed by Israeli war planes last year.
"Apparently they've decided on an unofficial MOU [memorandum of understanding] between Washington and Pyongyang," says Lee Jong Min, professor of international relations at Yonsei University. "This is a tacit acknowledgement. They won't talk about it."
The deal, says Mr. Lee, calls for North Korea to "agree with what the Americans said" about the uranium program as well as the Syrian facility but not to say so publicly.
Lee predicts this sort of deal will meet with criticism among conservatives here as well as in the American Congress.
"There are so many ifs and buts," he says. "I don't think President Lee will go to Washington and tell President Bush this is horrible, but he has to get an assurance from the American side that the Americans will not do a deal before the end of the year" lest Bush rush into a decision for the sake of his legacy.
Lee promises huge economic rewards for North Korea, but has angered the North Korea by conditioning the vow on the North's completely dismantling its nuclear program and returning hundreds of fishermen and Korean War prisoners. He also promises to address human rights abuses in North Korea – an issue that North Korea denies and refuses to discuss.
Lee's assembly majority means he should have no problem getting the assembly to ratify a highly controversial free trade agreement with the US. He will need conservative support, moreover, to remove one of the biggest obstacles to acceptance of the agreement by the US Congress – barriers to the import of US beef. US officials have repeatedly warned South Korea the agreement has no chance in Congress if South Korea fails to remove the barriers.