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South Korea under Lee Myung-bak

Gunjan Singh is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 22, 2008

    The 17th South Korean Presidential elections were concluded on December 19, 2007. The last serving President Roh Moo-hyun could not contest these elections as he had completed two terms in office. Roh Moo-hyun belonged to the Centrist Reformists Democratic Party, formerly called Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), or Saecheonnyeon Minju-dang, but changed its name to the present form on May 6, 2005. The MDP lost popularity when Roh was impeached in March 2004 by the National Assembly for illegal electioneering and incompetence.

    Lee Myung-bak of the Grand National Party won by a majority of 48.7 per cent votes. Lee is a former Hyundai executive and the Mayor of Seoul. He is seen as a pro-business candidate and one who symbolises Korea’s economic success story. He defeated rivals Chung Dong-young, 26 per cent (United New Democratic party) and Lee Hoi-chang, 15 per cent (Independent). This is a landslide victory in the history of presidential elections in South Korea. Lee promised to become the economy president of the country.

    South Korea is facing a major economic crisis as it is squeezed between two economic giants — high-tech Japan and low-cost China. Lee’s call for economic growth is perceived by many as an attempt to revive the ‘old Korea’ which was capable of producing jobs.

    The general perception is that Foreign Policy was not the driving factor in these elections. The primary concern was on domestic-economic issues. Lee’s landslide victory suggests a rejection by the electorate of the economic policies pursued in the last ten years. People were also not very happy with the stand taken by Roh towards North Korea.

    When Lee officially joins office in February 2008, there are a number of issues that he has to look at the domestic and international fronts. On the domestic front, Lee has promised that he will try and boost economic growth. Given his business background South Koreans are hopeful that he will be able to design suitable economic policies. He has already promised people that he will work towards raising the position of the South Korea among the top seven economies of the world and also increase the growth rate to 7 per cent per annum.

    On the international front, the relationship with North Korea is a much debated one. The policy pursued during the last ten years is not very much appreciated by the people. Lee has promised that he will provide aid to North Korea only if Pyongyang reforms its weak, state-run economy. The North should also continue to keep its promise of dismantling its nuclear weapons programme. Lee has also said that he intends to review the ‘Sunshine Policy’. This approach is bound to automatically bring him a lot closer to the United States. Lee has also added another qualification that is unlikely to please Pyongyang, namely, his government will review the agreements made between Roh and Kim at the October summit for economic and other cooperation. Lee asserts that that this deal was "sealed in principle" but lacks in details.

    But at the same time he has also made it clear that his government intends to fully engage North Korea, though he wants the talks to take place in the South this time. The two previous rounds of talks were held in North Korea. Outgoing President Roh was heavily criticised for consenting to Pyongyang’s demand for holding the second round of talks in North Korea. It is believed that this added to the already existing propaganda of South Korea being a tributary of the North.

    The future course of the Six Party Talks has come under much debate and introspection after Lee’s victory. For, Lee has stated that he will continue to provide economic aid to the North only after the latter confirms its intent to give up its nuclear programme. He has also decided to restart the focus on human rights, which was ignored by his predecessor. His stand will become much clearer in March 2008, when he will consider the North’s demand for food and fertilizer.

    Lee’s stand on North Korea will be highly appreciated in the United States. Lee is also a strong supporter of the United States South Korea Free Trade Agreement. During the campaign, Lee had proposed economic reforms that will help to achieve this. He is in favour of reduced trade barriers, lower taxes and enhanced transparency. He also believes that strong bilateral relations with the United States will help in maintaining peace and stability and that a closer military alliance will help deter North Korea.

    US policy makers were generally suspicious of Roh, who had asked during the 2002 campaign ‘What is wrong in being Anti-American?’ Roh had also cashed on the surge of anti-American feeling in the aftermath of the tragic death of two Korean school girls who were run over by a US armoured vehicle. Roh’s proposal of South Korea playing the role of a balancer in Northeast Asia was viewed by Washington as an attempt to undermine the US-South Korean alliance. On top of all this were the contentious negotiations to restructure the US-South Korea military alliance, including the transfer to Seoul of wartime operation control (OPCON) over South Korea.

    All these had strained the relationship with the United States. This also helped North Korea to play them off against each other. If bilateral relations between South Korea and the United States improve under the Lee presidency, North Korea will have fewer opportunities to renege on its promises. Thus one can foresee a change in the overall political situation in East Asia.

    On the Chinese front, Lee has asserted that he will make all efforts to improve this important relationship. He has promised to work towards building mutual trust and work together to bring about peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

    Lee has also sent his older brother to Japan as an envoy. Diplomatic ties between the two countries have not been very smooth because of a number of historical and territorial disputes. Relations became particularly strained after Koizumi’s repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. Lee has been emphasising upon strengthening the triangular relationship between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo. But this could potentially strengthen ties between North Korea, China and Russia.

    South Korea seems to be at the crossroads of political and economic transition. It appears that Lee will try and change his country’s political positioning in the international domain. Even before formally taking office, he has started making efforts to mend strained political relationships. It is to be seen how far he will succeed in his agenda and the impact this has on international relations in North East Asia.