The Politics of Peril

South Korea's untested Roh Moo Hyun faces a bizarre and dangerous foreign policy crisis. Is he up to it?

When Roh Moo Hyun won an improbable come-from-behind victory in South Korea's presidential election on Dec. 19, millions of his supporters--mostly the young and the idealistic--sang and danced into the night in the kind of euphoria that can come only when someone defies the odds and wins. In this campaign, the odds were staggering. Roh was the standard-bearer for the ruling Millennium Demo-cratic Party--a party tainted and demoralized by scandals surrounding the family and close associates of President Kim Dae Jung. Roh, a human-rights lawyer, had to square off against the well-oiled, well-financed Grand National Party--the party of the big conglomerates and the Establishment. But Roh appealed to the young of Korea and evoked a popular response when he told Washington to stop dictating foreign policy to Seoul. The underdog won.

Now, Roh's inauguration is just days away. His supporters are still ecstatic--the hope of a whole generation rests with Roh. But his odds are looking long again. Not of winning, but of resolving the world's most bizarre and dangerous foreign policy crisis, triggered by the nuclear brinkmanship of North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Il.

The crisis must be defused fast, and Roh must be part of the solution--even if it means cooperating with Washington, the object of his supporters' suspicion. That's because Kim Jong Il ratchets up the tension practically by the day. Just in the last week of January and the first days of February, Kim reloaded the nuclear reactor he needs to make fuel for nukes, then brazenly refused to meet with a delegation sent by Seoul. The North has warned of "total war" and hinted it might even launch a preemptive strike. "This shows 200% that North Korea is an international hooligan," says Kim Tae Woo, a research fellow at the state-funded Korea Institute for Defense Analysis in Seoul. The U.S., which figures Kim will have material for a half-dozen nukes by summer, has positioned extra bombers within range.

Roh desperately wants a peaceful solution to this crisis, as he made clear to BusinessWeek in a written exchange of questions and answers. The burning issue is whether he can handle the situation. A legislator for just six years, Roh's only job as a government administrator was a seven-month stint as Korea's Maritime Affairs & Fisheries Minister. He speaks little English and has seldom traveled overseas.

That's not to say Roh isn't plenty tough. A peasant's son from the country's southeast, he worked as a clerk for a fishnet company and as a day laborer on construction sites to support himself early on. Although he never went to college, he studied for--and passed--Korea's grueling bar exam, a rare feat in a society where even many law school graduates never qualify for the bar. Roh cut his teeth defending unionists and political activists during the authoritarian rule of U.S.-backed strongman Chun Doo Hwan in the 1980s. Radicalism lies close to home: Roh's father-in-law died after 18 years in prison, accused of aiding North Korea during the war.

In short, Roh stands to the left of any previous South Korean leader. So far, he hasn't made clear how he plans to deal with the threat from the North. Roh says he won't tolerate nuclear weapons on the peninsula. But he has suggested no tough action in response to Pyongyang's apparent intention to produce weapons-grade plutonium, or the recent news that Kim appears to be hiding material that could be used for making bombs. Roh continues to advocate an extension of humanitarian aid to North Korea, and he supported the opening on Feb. 5 of the first road across the demilitarized zone that divides the two countries. "It's desirable to focus on setting up a dialogue with North Korea at this stage," Roh says in his written response. But he wants to work with Washington on resolving the crisis: "Our government will not mediate between North Korea and the U.S. but will stand alongside the U.S. in trying to find a peaceful solution." If Washington believes Roh is appeasing North Korea, though, relations between the two allies could quickly worsen.

A big issue will be how much Roh has to listen to those South Koreans--many of them his supporters--who no longer want to kowtow to the U.S. Despite decades of U.S. military and economic assistance, 44% of Roh's compatriots view the U.S. unfavorably--one of the highest percentages in the world, according to a study of more than 38,000 people in 44 countries released in December by the Pew Research Center. Some three-quarters of Koreans believe that U.S. foreign policy fails to consider other countries' interests, the study found.

These attitudes are bound to play a role as both Seoul and Washington grope for a solution. Seoul wants respect, and plenty of it. "Korea's own sovereignty must be recognized," says Chyung Dai Chul, Roh's envoy to Washington. Chyung says Seoul did not have any role in the past when the U.S. negotiated with Pyongyang over military issues: "The U.S. must not set policies on the Korean peninsula and then say, `Follow me."' And the South wants more than consultations. Says Yoo Jay Kun, a member of Parliament from Roh's party and a member of Chyung's delegation to the U.S. "We want to maintain our own dialogue channels with North Korea."

It's not just respect Roh's followers are seeking. The divergence of interest between Washington and Seoul is big enough to drive an armored personnel carrier through. The primary goal of the U.S. and Japan is to shut down the North's nuclear capability and prevent it from selling weapons and nuclear expertise to other rogue states. The interest of South Korea's rulers, in contrast, appears to be to deal with the North while doing everything possible to prevent a collapse of Kim's regime. That would be an economic catastrophe for the South if the country were forced to absorb hundreds of thousands of starving refugees. And there appears to be a growing sense of anti-American solidarity between the North and young people in the South who never experienced the horrors of the Korean War. Even accusations that outgoing President Kim Dae Jung's administration bribed Kim Jong Il with as much as $500 million to agree to a summit meeting don't seem to have shaken many of Roh's supporters. The Seoul government denies the allegations.

Publicly, U.S. officials say they're ready to work with Roh. "We agree more than we differ," insists U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Thomas C. Hubbard. "We both want a nuclear-weapons-free Korean peninsula." In fact, one official says he believes Roh will be less likely to make concessions to North Korea than was Kim Dae Jung, the father of Seoul's "sunshine policy" toward Pyongyang. Senior Bush Administration officials who met with Chyung weren't impressed with the South Korean position, though, and some worry that Roh and his team are both too inexperienced and too nationalistic to take the tough steps needed to resolve this crisis.

Roh will try to patch relations on a visit to Washington soon after his inauguration. Roh would clearly love to focus on his real passions--political reform, the economy, and the end of chaebol dominance. He says he'll speed up market reforms, tighten restrictions on big business, and clean up Korea's graft-ridden political system. Such moves would undoubtedly strengthen South Korea's economy and society. But first, this inexperienced leader will have to sort out relations with both North Korea and the U.S. Neither is going away--and somewhere in the North, the nuclear threat is growing. The peasant's son has won. Now, he must lead.

By Moon Ihlwan and Mark L. Clifford in Seoul, with Stan Crock in Washington, D.C.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE