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Print edition : January 18, 2008

Lee Myung-bak, of the conservative Grand National Party, after his victory in Seoul on December 19.

Lee Myung-bak, who scored a landslide victory in the presidential election, has a high acceptability quotient in the United States.

THE emergence of Lee Myung-bak as South Korea’s next President has pleased not only his compatriots, who handed him a landslide victory in the presidential election on December 19, but also the United States, the country’s long-time military ally.

As President-elect Lee, who will assume office on February 25, has already outdone U.S. President George W. Bush by sending a tough message to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea). However, as “the national interest” President of the Republic of Korea (RoK), Lee will find himself having to navigate a fine line in “pragmatism”.

Following the recent election of the charismatic Kevin Rudd as the Prime Minister of Australia, a time-tested U.S. ally, Bush knows that he will now have to engage a robustly independent-minded leader in Greater East Asia. Although the U.S. has not sought to portray Rudd as a potential Hugo Chavez of the East, Lee’s rise on the South Korean political scene is a comforting reality for Bush and his minions.

In fact, at the time of the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in October 2007, high-ranking Western diplomats in Seoul told this correspondent that Lee’s likely poll victory, as it then was, should suit the U.S. policy on the peninsula. According to them, incumbent President Roh Moo-hyun, who began his tenure five years ago as a strong U.S.-sceptic, gradually settled down as a friend of Washington, if not as its cheer leader. In contrast, Lee is seen poised to begin his tenure at Blue House, the seat of executive power, with a high acceptability quotient in Washington.

On balance, though, the politics of South Korea is not all about the country’s equation with North Korea. And its strategic bottom line in dealing with the DPRK is not so much the global power calculus of the U.S. as the dynamics of inter-Korean dialogue.

Above all, Lee is popular among South Koreans. He secured 48.7 per cent of the vote as against 26.1 per cent by his rival, Chung Dong-young, from a hardly prominent pro-government party. The margin of victory is the biggest since RoK’s first presidential election in 1956. These political parameters do not, however, admit of a runaway pro-U.S. policy for the simple but profound reason that an anti-American sentiment, with varied political hues, is pervasive among South Koreans.

Aware of these realities, Lee has set out a foreign policy agenda of good relations with major powers in the neighbourhood. This agenda is designed to be consistent with a broad U.S.-friendly orientation. However, ties with China, Japan and Russia have been emphasised on two counts – the need to ensure a rightful place for the country in the emerging Greater East Asian order and the need to de-nuclearise the DPRK.

The degree of Lee’s disposition towards the U.S. will be watched particularly in the domain of domestic policies. In a sense, an imaginary line can be drawn between the RoK’s internal politics and its emerging equation with the DPRK. Lee turned the focus almost exclusively on the DPRK’s nuclear arms and human rights issues while engaging the envoys of the U.S., China, Japan and Russia within days of his poll triumph. Moreover, at his first post-poll press conference in Seoul on December 20, Lee emphasised that the RoK, in his presidency, would no longer pander to the DPRK. Pyongyang would not also be allowed to have its way on such issues as its human rights record and nuclear arms programmes. He debunked the fashionable theory that inter-Korean ties could now be seen to enjoy a “special status” in the international domain. It was this aspect that the Roh administration had cited while recently abstaining from a vote at the United Nations on the DPRK’s human rights record, which, in the eyes of the West, “is dismal”.

Beyond the new sound bites of Lee’s agendas for domestic and foreign affairs lie the changing dynamics of the triangular, not trilateral, equations among the two Koreas and the U.S. It was not for a fanciful pastime that Bush chose to send the DPRK leader, Kim Jong-il, a hand-signed letter, on White House stationery, on December 1. Beyond Bush’s demand, in that letter, that Kim make a complete and verifiable declaration on the status of his atomic arsenal and nuclear weapons programmes, lay a new recognition of Pyongyang as an interlocutor.

It is this aspect that Lee now runs the risk of overlooking, if not undermining, by viewing Roh’s summit with Kim in Pyongyang in October as an exercise in pandering to the DPRK. Their summit was only the second such event since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The first inter-Korean summit took place in 2000 between southern President Kim Dae-jung and the North’s Kim.

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