The landslide victory of Lee Myung-bak in South Korea's
presidential race will bring about a major improvement in the
country's foreign policies toward the United States and North
Korea. The U.S.-South Korea relationship will be strengthened by
closer views on security issues. The new, improved atmosphere
between the long-time allies will serve as a firm foundation for
realizing the full potential of the bilateral relationship. For its
part, Washington will have to accommodate South Korea's increasing
military capabilities and its desire for a mature, more equal
relationship. That approach, however, would be necessary in any
case and will only fortify the relationship.
On the issue of most critical importance to America, North
Korea's nuclear weapons program, Lee's pragmatic demand for
reciprocity in engaging Pyongyang will enhance allied leverage in
the Six-Party Talks. Negotiations may slow down in the near-term as
Pyongyang adjusts to a tougher perspective from Seoul, but the
overall prospects for securing U.S. and Korean interests will
With regard to the economy, the central issue at stake in the
election, Lee Myung-bak will implement policies more favorable to
free market principles. His rejection of progressive
redistributionist policies will send a positive signal to foreign
and domestic investors who have been confused by President Roh
Moo-hyun's vacillating economic strategies. Lee is a strong
proponent of the U.S.-South Korean Free Trade Agreement and has
proposed economic reforms to reduce trade barriers, lower taxes,
and enhance transparency.
Rejection of Progressive Policies
A member of the conservative Grand National Party (GNP), Lee
Myung-bak received 48.6 percent of the vote, far ahead of
progressive Chung Dong-young (26.3 percent) and fellow conservative
Lee Hoi-chang (15.1 percent). Although Lee Hoi-chang's candidacy
threatened to derail Lee Myung-bak's victory by splitting the
conservative vote, the collective 63 percent of the vote attained
by conservatives reflected an electorate rebuff to the progressive
movement. The populace punished the progressive candidates in
retaliation for Roh's determination to bring about societal
transformation rather than focusing on ensuring the country's
economic recovery. The ruling progressive party had fared poorly
during legislative by-elections during the past three years.
Economic issues were paramount in the voters' minds. They saw a
CEO-style president like Lee Myung-bak as more likely to improve
the economy, induce domestic and foreign investment, create jobs,
and improve South Korean competitiveness against China and Japan.
The public also wanted a centrist, less ideological candidate and
rejected candidates at the farthest ends of the political spectrum.
Lee Myung-bak had positioned himself in the middle and moved the
conservative Grand National Party toward the center in order to
make it more electable.
Improving Relations with
In a December 20 phone call to President George W. Bush, Lee
Myung-bak identified improved relations with the United States as a
priority policy objective. He has emphasized the importance of the
close military alliance with Washington in deterring the North
Korean threat and maintaining peace and stability in Asia. He
criticized Roh's divisive policies as needlessly straining
relations with Washington.
U.S. policymakers have been suspicious of Roh since his 2002
campaign, when he asked, "What's wrong with being anti-American?"
He also capitalized on a wave of anti-Americanism caused by the
tragic death of two Korean schoolgirls by a U.S. armored vehicle.
President Roh's proposed "balancer role" for South Korea in
northeast Asia was perceived in Washington as downplaying the
significance of the bilateral military alliance. The relationship
was further strained by contentious negotiations over restructuring
the U.S.-Korea military alliance, which includes the transfer of
wartime operation control (OPCON) of South Korean troops to
Increasing Coordination in Six-Party
Lee Myung-bak will improve bilateral coordination between the
U.S. and South Korea in the Six-Party Talks, reducing Pyongyang's
ability to play the two allies against each other. A realistic
policy that requires reciprocity and transparency from North Korea
will also be more consistent with Six-Party Talks objectives of
using coordinated multi-lateral diplomatic efforts to leverage
Pyongyang's implementation of its nuclear commitments.
Inter-Korean relations could be delayed in the short-term since
North Korea may respond angrily to Lee Myung-bak's imposition of
conditionality in Seoul's engagement policy. In seeking to
influence South Korean policy, Pyongyang could also hinder progress
in the Six-Party Talks and threaten a return to brinksmanship,
blaming Lee's espousal of outdated Cold War thinking. Lee should
maintain resolve, however, in order for South Korea to gain more
leverage in moderating North Korean behavior, inducing economic and
political reform, and ensuring Pyongyang fulfills its
Despite 10 years of generous aid from South Korea, Pyongyang has
not fundamentally reformed its economy nor, needless to say,
altered its political system. North Korea's abhorrence of reform is
made clear by its insistence on "enclave capitalism," whereby
foreign businesses are isolated in walled-off areas to prevent the
contagion of outside influence that could trigger real change.
President Roh's refusal to confront North Korea over its human
rights abuses, and his capitulation in agreeing to strike "reform"
and "change" from the engagement lexicon, shows the extent of South
Korean willingness to kowtow for the sake of its one-sided largesse
to the North.
Despite his election victory, Lee Myung-bak will continue to
face strong challenges from both the Left and the Right as rivals
position themselves for the April 2008 National Assembly election.
Though wounded by their election loss, the progressives will
maintain their attacks on Lee's ethics and highlight an ongoing
investigation of his involvement in a scandal surrounding a venture
capital firm called BBK. Conservative Lee Hoi-chang has vowed to
form a Chungcheong Province-based party to compete with the GNP.
Lee Myung-bak's ability to repair the split in the conservative
movement remains in doubt and could be dependent on the degree to
which he incorporates former GNP Chairwoman Park Geun-hye into his
administration. President Lee Myung-bak may need to shift his
policies--especially on North Korea--to the right in order to gain
legislative support from Lee Hoi-chang in either a formal or an
informal conservative coalition.
What the U.S. Should Do
With the election of Lee Myung-bak, U.S. policymakers should
take the following actions to help the bilateral relationship reach
its full potential:
- Embrace Lee Myung-bak's efforts to repair the damage done to
the bilateral alliance during the Roh administration. Although it
would be counterproductive for President Lee to appeal to
Washington to formally reverse the OPCON decision, the negative
effects could be mitigated by careful bilateral planning in coming
years. The U.S. could announce that the planned 2012 transfer date
is contingent on both a sufficient reduction in the North Korean
threat and satisfactory progress in improving South Korean military
capabilities, and that it is open to discussion as to the
feasibility of the transfer by the currently agreed upon date.
- Seek common ground in transforming the military alliance to
incorporate enhanced South Korean military capabilities while
maintaining an integrated U.S. role.
- Balance its military alliances in Asia by underscoring the
importance of South Korea to maintaining peace and stability in the
region on an equal basis as Washington's alliance with Japan.
- Closely integrate U.S., South Korean, and Japanese initiatives
toward North Korea to enhance negotiating leverage to secure
Pyongyang's full denuclearization.
- Ratify the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement to serve as a
powerful statement of the U.S. commitment to East Asia and the
economic importance of the bilateral relationship.
The election of Lee Myung-bak is good news for the United States
on the diplomatic, security, and economic fronts. The departure of
Roh Moo-hyun and his anti-Americanism sets the stage for a stronger
relationship between the long-time allies. Through better
coordination, the U.S. and South Korea will be more effective in
working toward the full denuclearization of North Korea. Lee's
support for markets will help both countries reap even greater
benefits through free trade. U.S. policymakers must seize this
opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to the bilateral
relationship and take new strides toward securing peace in
Bruce Klingner is Senior
Research Fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at
The Heritage Foundation.