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Feb 21, 2008, Asian Security Forum

From left: Peter Beck, Satu Limaye and JJ Suh discuss Korea's new president at the East-West Center in Washington on February 21, 2008.

SEOUL SHIFT: WHAT TO EXPECT FROM SOUTH KOREA’S NEW PRESIDENT

(WASHINGTON, DC) Feb. 21 – As the February 25, 2008, inauguration date for ROK President-elect Lee Myung-bak approaches, questions abound as to what  directions the new conservative administration will take.  Constitutional reform, economic management, the Six-Party talks, and the future of the ROK-U.S. alliance were among the topics discussed by J.J. Suh, Director of the Korea Studies Program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington, and Peter Beck, Executive Director of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, during a seminar on “What to Expect from South Korea’s New President” at the East-West Center in Washington on Feb. 21.

Dr. Suh began by explaining that the “radical change in South Korea’s foreign policy” being predicted by some analysts and media pundits may  not occur, due largely to structural constraints in South Korea’s political system. The complex democratic process itself, for one, may serve to limit the range of policy alternatives available to Lee. Timing will serve as a limiting factor for South Korea’s U.S. relations, as the new administration will have to reconcile the immediate desire to reinforce ties with the current U.S. Congress, including passage of KORUS, with the imminence of a new U.S. presidential administration. South Korea cannot afford to alienate its regional neighbors at a time when competing against them would be economically and politically counterproductive. Suh noted that Lee’s emphasis on “pragmatism” signals few radical foreign policy departures for the new administration.

Suh also speculated about an optimal policy for the Six-Party talks process that has recently reached another  seeming impasse.  Suh suggested that it is incumbent upon President-elect Lee to keep the process alive, and that it may be advantageous for Lee to propose a sequential “actions-for-actions” implementation plan, which would include, among other steps, Pyongyang’s providing complete documentation of its nuclear activities and Washington’s annulment of its “Trading with the Enemy Act” with the DPRK.  Suh noted that there is still time for both the U.S. and South Korea to nudge North Korea towards each of the “checkpoints” articulated in the last agreement and to make progress before the mid-March deadline.

Peter Beck noted seven challenges facing the new administration—four domestic and three related to foreign policy. The first domestic challenge would be rebuilding a national security system, to protect sites such as the recently burnt down Namdaemun gate.  This point was followed by the need to build a cohesive and centrist government, to change the constitution, and to manage an economy increasingly being dominated by an “untouchable” corporate elite. Meanwhile, Lee’s foreign policy challenges include striking a balance with North Korea—and in the process ramping up humanitarian efforts in the DPRK; forging positive relations with the U.S. amidst complicated FTA and operational wartime control negotiations; and crafting a strategic vision for South Korea’s place in Asia and the world—beginning with the resolution of historical disputes over territory with China. On this final point, Beck stated that President-elect Lee will “need more than just an economic magic wand” to resolve some of his country’s outstanding foreign policy challenges.

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