Korean Vote May Test Ties with US ; Incoming President Roh Moo-Hyun Opposes a Tough Line with North Korea

Article excerpt

On Thursday, South Korean voters, surging on a wave of youthful nationalist and anti-US feeling, narrowly elected a former labor lawyer, Roh Moo-hyun, to lead their country. It was a clear blow to White House hopes for a government more sympathetic to American troops and tough US policies on North Korea's recent nuclear threats.

Mr. Roh - who came to national prominence as a hard hitting interrogator of government officials in 1988, but who has no national experience - defeated Lee Hoi-chang, a former Supreme Court justice and leader of a pro-US "old guard" party. The outcome was unclear until last night, when a mostly under-40 crowded danced and shouted and carried yellow balloons through the streets of this city.

While Mr. Lee campaigned on the need to scrap the Sunshine Policy of engagement with the North, Roh aligned himself with the view that tough US policies are causing tension and potential strife in Korea.

Roh will lead for one five-year term a country that now exists in a curious interregnum between its aspirations to be a star independent player in Asia and a set of sobering unresolved realities. Among those: Korea's protection from the fifth largest army in the world is still provided by a $5 billion annual US military deployment.

Also, as the election itself shows, the country is deeply divided over basic national questions about its identity, about the US and the North, and between a generation that remembers the Korean war and a high-tech cell- phone carrying "Internet" generation that has watched Korea mature into one of the world's top 10 economies.

Roh has said little in recent weeks about the North's nuclear program. Last week, in a comment to reporters, he said he lacked "clear evidence that they [North Korea] is developing a nuclear weapon."

One senior Western official hopes Roh's views on the North will change. "I think he will begin to see a different level of security briefing, now that he is in office," the official commented.

How Roh will actually approach the US once in office is also unknown, and he has yet to announce his international policy team.

"He must stabilize relations with the US and at the same time manage a nuclear crisis similar to the one faced in 1993," says Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation in Seoul, referring to North Korea's recent admission of a secret nuclear program. "Roh's challenge will be to gain the confidence and trust of the US, try to equalize Korea's relations with the US. And he's dealing with some internal skepticism about this in the White House."

Some Korean commentators say major changes are coming. "With Roh elected, we may have a massive problem with the US," says Shim Jae- hoon, a well-known analyst and writer. "Roh has said he will review the structure of relations with the US dating to 50 years ago. Koreans do want that. But whereas Lee wanted to review in a positive way, Roh wants a critical review. …