Corruption and Infighting Roil S. Korea ; President Roh Moo-Hyun's Foreign Minister Resigned in a Rift over How to Balance Relations with the US and N. Korea
Donald Kirk Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
The forced resignation Thursday of Korea's foreign minister added to the turmoil within a government already shaken by corruption scandals, torn by internal divisions, and weakened by conservative foes in control of the National Assembly.
Yoon Young Kwan, a former Seoul National University professor who had seemed to support President Roh Moo-hyun's desire for an "independent" policy vis-a-vis the United States, was finally forced out after revelation of a deep rift between his subordinates and Roh's closest aides.
Differences focused on how to rationalize the desire of the Bush administration for a firm policy toward North Korea with efforts by Mr. Roh to pursue the "sunshine policy" of reconciliation advocated by his predecessor, Kim Dae Jung. The rift emerged in recent days amid reports that one leading foreign ministry official had accused members of Roh's entourage of fanatic pursuit of their enemies by likening them to Afghanistan's Taliban.
In response, Jeong Chan Yong, a senior secretary at the Blue House, the center of presidential power, said bluntly that foreign ministry officials had "failed to effectively implement the independent foreign policy direction" of the government.
While Mr. Yoon's resignation appeared initially as a setback for closer ties between Seoul and Washington in the midst of an international standoff with North Korea, some analysts questioned the extent to which the furor would force a shift in outlook.
"This is some kind of bureaucratic infighting between institutions," says Kim Tae Hwan of Yonsei University's school of international studies. "Professional diplomats tended to look down on the National Security Council staff surrounding the president and complained they had no idea what diplomacy involves. I don't think it symbolizes a change in policy."
But the incident threatens to consume more of the Roh administration's time and energy, already dissipated by seemingly nonstop corruption scandals. Aides say that the president is consumed by the scandals, so much so that he has little energy left to deal with pressing topics like the economy and North Korea.
'I regret all this'
In his New Year's press conference on Wednesday, the South Korean president acknowledged the scandal has been a distraction. "The public became upset over the issue of illegal presidential election campaign funds, coupled with faults surrounding me," Roh said. "Once again, I regret all this."
Corruption appears certain to grab headlines, taking precedence over North Korea, in the run-up to National Assembly elections in April. In the upcoming contest, he hopes his followers can cut into the majority held by the conservative Grand National Party, an obstacle to whatever he hopes to do on substantive issues.
However, Roh may end up losing support, in part because the southwestern Cholla region is now divided on his presidency after having been largely responsible for his victory in 2002. More than 95 percent of the voters from Cholla cast their ballots for Roh even though he's from near Pusan, the major center in the southeast. …