ICAS Special Contribution

No. 2002-1223-DxK

Moo Hyun Roh: South Korea's President-Elect

Don Kirk

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Tel : (610) 277-9989; (610) 277-0149
Fax: (610) 277-3992
Email: icas@icasinc.org

Biographic Sketch & Links: Don Kirk

[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge a generous contribution, with a written permission, of this paper by Don Kirk. A translated [into Korean] version of this piece will appear in the Weekly Chosun of January 2, 2003, issue number 1735. : sjk]

Moo Hyun Roh: South Korea's President-Elect

by Don Kirk *

The election of Roh Moo Hyun opens an exciting period in Korean history. Roh in his first press conference spoke as though there would be few surprises and no shocks, but an air of uncertainty hangs over his administration. It doesnít seem possible that Korean-American relations can drift along as before, characterized by occasional nasty incidents amid frequent expressions of goodwill that have little real meaning for most people. The activists who have been demonstrating in central Seoul, as close to the American embassy as the police will let them, wonít let Roh as president forget the support that he gave them during his campaign even though he stopped short of identifying too closely with them. American officials will no doubt turn on a charm offensive, as seen in the speed with which the American ambassador, Thomas Hubbard, called on Roh on the morning after the election and then the alacrity with which President Bush followed up with a phone call inviting him to Washington.

What was it that Roh said during the campaign about refusing to go to the United States just to have his picture taken? It seems that is exactly what he will do, but there should be a difference. He will have to pursue the theme of diplomacy and dialogue with the North, as he has repeatedly promised. His goal should be to try to turn the American administration away from the hard line pursued by Bush, particularly since North Korea admitted the existence of a new program for making nuclear warheads from enriched uranium. Rohís election also means the government will be reviewing the entire military relationship with the United States. That problem may be just as difficult as North Korea. Washington is not going to agree to a revision of the status-of-forces agreement that would enable Korean courts to try American soldiers for anything that happens in the course of a military exercise. No other status-of-forces agreement between the United States and any other country carries such a provision. Status-of-forces agreements on the legal position of Korean troops on overseas missions are modeled after the status-of-forces agreement on American troops in South Korea. The outcome of the talks on the agreement may be a decision by the United States not to hold exercises outside the confines of American bases. If negotiations break down completely, the United States could consider withdrawing its forces from South Korea.

How Rohís government will want to respond to these negotiations remains a mystery. Itís not inconceivable that the new government will settle for an understanding under which United States military strength in Korea is vastly reduced. A number of Americans believe this solution would be desirable. Roh himself may call for a reduction in forces if the United States is unwilling to agree to a substantive change in the status-of-forces agreement. The demonstrators who filled the streets near the American embassy shouting "Yankee Go Home" may have the wrong idea if they think Americans really want to be here. The Americans did not come to conquer Korea but to defend the South against communist aggression. They managed to accomplish that goal even if they failed to reunify the country. If the Americans are no longer needed here, there is no reason why they should stay, especially if they are no longer welcome.

Rohís election will give Koreans a chance to consider seriously the American role here. His policy toward North Korea will also provide a real test of North-South Korean relations. No one could be more open than he to negotiations with the North on the most humanitarian terms. He has said the South should go on providing aid to the North regardless of its nuclear program or the presence of more than a million troops above the demilitarized zone. If the North turns its back on him and refuses to offer anything in return, such as regular inter-Korean family visits and mail service and regular road and rail links, then the world will know there really is no way to deal with that regime on any rational level. Rohís presidency will provide what may be the last and best opportunity for North-South reconciliation. As president, Roh has the chance to perpetuate Kim Dae Jungís "sunshine" policy as an enduring legacy.

From a foreign perspective, the election of Roh appears to usher in a period of testing of the strength of the policy of reconciliation as well as the durability of the U.S.-Korean relationship. No relation can remain static. Change over time is inevitable. With South Koreaís rise as one of the dozen or so largest economic powers in the world, there is a desire among many South Koreans to demonstrate that the country is truly free of the need for foreign troops. Korea cannot really fulfill its potential, though, until it is one unified country. Rohís outlook, as we have seen in the campaign, offers some hope for achieving that goal, if not in five years, then over the next decade. With hope, there is also the chance of failure, or at least a realization of reality. Rohís election was a triumph of democracy in which the major candidates offered sharply different policies. Korea under Roh enters a time of testing which will, if anything, be more exciting than the campaign. Korean history as I have watched it since first coming to Seoul in 1972 has been full of surprises, good and bad. It is safe to predict more surprises as Roh struggles to fulfill the dreams offered in campaign program and slogans.

* ICAS Fellow and Seoul correspondent of the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times.

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