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North Korea Crisis Awaits Incoming South Korean President - 2003-02-24

President-elect Roh Moo-hyun will take the helm as South Korea's next president Tuesday, amid global concerns about the North Korean nuclear crisis. He has pledged to play a key role in resolving the stand-off, but in a way that could dramatically alter Seoul's relationship with its main ally, Washington.

Roh Moo-hyun won an unlikely victory last December. The odds were stacked against the 56-year-old former human rights lawyer, who was not a well-known politician and whose Millenium Democractic Party had been damaged by scandals.

But in a contest against the well-financed, conservative Grand National Party, known for its strong ties to the business world and to Washington, Mr. Roh won the presidency with the support of South Korea's younger generation. He beat the conservative candidate, helped by a wave of anti-American sentiment that brought hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets of Seoul late last year.

Relations with Washington, especially in light of North Korea's nuclear aspirations, are likely to be a key theme of the Roh Presidency. During his campaign, Mr. Roh indicated that Seoul should rethink its ties to Washington, and suggested that there may be a need for adjustments to the 37,000 strong U.S. troop presence in the South. While he says South Korea's alliance with the United States is vital to his nation's security, he wants to assert more independence from Washington in dealing with the North.

Henry Morris, a Seoul-based analyst with Industrial Research and Consulting, says the fact is the United States does not want this man standing up and saying I am going to be honest broker and an independent body, negotiating body between the North and the United States. That is not the way the United States sees the South. The United States sees the South on its side and not as a neutral body in between itself and the North. And now, this guy is saying I don't want to do that, I want to step back and be in the middle.

Mr. Roh opposes Washington's confrontational policy toward Pyongyang and has vowed to seek engagement with the North, the policy established by his predecessor, Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae-jung. He says that while he will not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea, a peaceful dialogue is the only way to resolve the matter. He suggests that if the world reassures Pyongyang on security concerns and provides economic assistance, it will be willing to give up its nuclear ambitions.

But Robert Broadfoot, an analyst at the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, warns such thinking may be naďve. Mr. Broadfoot also raised the possibility that Mr. Roh may have gone further in his campaign statements than he really intended. He has found himself boxed into a corner because of his own campaign rhetoric. How is he going to do a fancy sidestep so that it does not make him look too bad? It is going to be a big challenge and I think his honeymoon is going to be particularly short, he says.

The latest controversy over North Korea's nuclear ambitions surfaced four months ago, when Washington said Pyongyang had admitted to a secret program to enrich uranium. Since then, Pyongyang has taken a number of steps, including expelling U.N. weapons inspectors and withdrawing from the global nuclear non-proliferation pact.

While foreign policy matters may be at the top of President Roh's agenda, he also must contend with a major domestic challenge - finishing his predecessor's overhaul of South Korea's corporate landscape. Doing so is crucial to winning the support of foreign investors.

South Korea's new leader is expected to take on the country's hugely powerful, family-run conglomerates called chaebol, which are widely seen as wielding excessive economic power. He is also likely to increase the role of the country's huge labor unions in corporate management issues.

Mr. Broadfoot, from the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, says observers are wary about how Mr. Roh's policies might affect the economy. We do not know what he is yet, he says. He has a background as someone who supports labor. We do not know what his policy will be toward foreign investment, what his policy will be toward privatization and what his policy will be toward the chaebol. We do not know what he believes firmly.

This relatively inexperienced leader, who grew up in a tiny farming village, who holds no college degree, who has barely traveled, takes over a country that sits at the heart of one of the world's major international crises, and whose economy is a crucial factor in the region. He is a long shot who won the race, and now he must now prove he is up to the job.