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Reflecting the New Face of S. Korea

Scott Snyder is the Korea representative of the Asia Foundation. The opinions expressed here are his own.

South Korean voters choose a new president Thursday for a five-year term. The new leader must protect South Korea’s hard-won economic prosperity while resolving perhaps the most far-reaching political and security challenges since the Korean War.

After a deeply divisive campaign, the new president must determine the future of South Korea’s relationship with the United States, end North Korea’s nuclear weapons threat, lay the foundations for inter-Korean economic integration and peaceful coexistence and promote regional cooperation as a means to guarantee South Korea’s security and prosperity.

The campaign has pitted opposition party candidate Lee Hoi Chang, a conservative former prosecutor and former prime minister with an elite educational background and social connections, against President Kim Dae Jung’s populist ruling party successor, Roh Moo Hyun, a progressive self-educated lawyer and former labor activist.

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The campaign has exposed and deepened generational and ideological divisions that must be overcome to effectively meet the many challenges.

The nature of South Korea’s security relationship with the U.S. has become a divisive focal point in the presidential campaign amid growing public protests after the November acquittals of two American soldiers in U.S. military court for a vehicle accident that killed two South Korean middle-school girls. An early task for South Korea’s new president will be to stabilize the relationship, restore effective communication and mutual trust at the highest levels and reaffirm his commitment to future security and political cooperation with the U.S.

The ability of South Korea and the U.S. to coordinate their approaches in dealing with North Korea’s renewed nuclear ambitions will determine the durability and effectiveness of the alliance. The formation of an international coalition to deny economic support to North Korea as punishment for its nuclear weapons efforts depends in substantial part on Seoul’s policies. South Korea’s citizenry supports a negotiated resolution of the current standoff and opposes hard-line policies that may risk their immediate security.

Based on this public consensus, South Korea’s new leader may endorse the nonproliferation objectives of the Bush administration as a prerequisite for continued economic engagement with the North, but in return he may seek stepped-up diplomatic efforts involving Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang.

The Bush administration should not further risk alliance deterioration by defying South Korean public expectations that their elected leader’s views be considered as those of a full partner.

In line with likely security developments in the region, the next South Korean leadership may seek to redefine bilateral security ties with the U.S., including reductions in U.S. troops stationed in Korea. South Korea’s rapidly expanding regional economic ties have lessened its overall dependence on the U.S. The younger generation has interpreted this continued security dependence as humiliating and anachronistic.

The challenge for the U.S. is to adjust to South Korea’s need for a more balanced and multifaceted political/security orientation, given its complex economic relationships in the region. South Korea’s rapid industrialization and global leadership in many key economic sectors has allowed Seoul for the first time to shape the nation’s future and expand its ties with China, Japan, Russia and the U.S.

South Korea’s new president must consolidate public support and deploy this newfound economic and political influence to transform the inter-Korean standoff, constructively influence regional security and enhance multilateral economic and political cooperation. The choices he makes will determine whether South Korea is able to retain the security and prosperity it now enjoys.


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