Chain Reaction on the Korean Peninsula

Ending the Three Kims' Epoch

Nuclear reactor site in Yongbyon, North Korea
The nuclear reactor site in Yongbyon, North Korea in a satellite photo taken Feb. 5, 2003, and released Feb. 7, 2003 (Photo: DigitalGlobe/AFP).

The recent South Korean presidential election proved to be one of the most democratic in the entire history of the Republic of Korea. Roh Moo-hyun, from the ruling [Millennium] Democratic Party, won an unexpected victory.

Just one and a half years before the election, Lee Hoi-chang, the leader of the opposition party Hannara (Grand National Party), was the obvious favorite. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs even staged his visit to Moscow in the spring of 2002, thinking he would be the future president.

Facing falling popularity, the Democratic Party opted for a political novelty. In the spring of 2002 it held its primaries according to the U.S. model and, to the utter surprise of observers, Roh Moo-hyun, a former lawyer who used to defend working people, beat the ruling party’s conservative representative. Roh’s success could be attributed to the unambiguous support given to him by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who hoped that Roh would continue the president’s soft policy toward North Korea.

But although Roh won his party’s presidential nomination, he was still unable to raise his popularity rating on the national level. By the fall of 2002 he was 10 to 15 percentage points behind Lee Hoi-chang.

At that time, Chung Mong-joon, president of the South Korean Soccer Federation and son of the late founder and owner of Hyundai, the largest financial-industrial conglomerate in South Korea, announced his ambitions to become president. Not only did Chung have corporate financial capital, but he also gained tremendous popularity after the phenomenal success of South Korea’s team at the World Soccer Championship. His small party “National Alliance 21” became a new ally of the Democratic Party.

According to the results of the November television debates, Roh surpassed Lee in popularity and became the top candidate from the new coalition. Roh’s popularity rating began to rise sharply and, on the eve of the election, he and Lee were tied at the polls. Almost all South Korean analysts were predicting a close election.

And then something unexpected happened. On the eve of the election, Chung announced that he was going to drop out of the coalition and stop supporting Roh. His stated reason was that Roh had begun to make anti-U.S. statements (“if the United States goes to war with North Korea, we will stop them”) and say things like “It is yet too early for Chung to think of becoming president in 2007.”

Roh won the election—by approximately 2.5 percentage points, or half a million votes. South Korean journalists joked that he won by just one goal.

To all appearances, the news about the breakup of the Roh-Chung coalition prompted Roh’s potential supporters to go and vote for him. And Lee’s adherents probably figured that it was not worth bothering with that, because the victory was theirs anyway.

Many analysts have suggested that the anti-American factor was ultimately responsible for Roh’s victory. The anti-U.S. sentiment grew out of the deaths of two South Korean girls in June 2002; they were killed when a U.S. military truck ran over them. Although the American driver was found not guilty, radical South Korean youth demanded that the United States offer a public apology and close down its military bases in South Korea.

Still, it is misleading to describe Roh as anti-American, or Lee as pro-American. Both of them understood and publicly admitted that the United States is South Korea’s largest military, political, and economic partner—as well as the guarantor of safety on the Korean Peninsula. But the fact remains that Roh played the anti-American card in the last days of his election campaign, while Lee chose to accentuate the ineffectiveness of the engagement policy toward North Korea, the so-called Sunshine Policy, that Roh had advocated.

North Korea was quick to welcome Roh’s election victory. From Pyongyang’s point of view, Roh was an attractive option because he advocated providing economic support to North Korea and said he would not follow Washington’s hard-line policy of insisting that North Korea abandon its nuclear program before dialogue between North Korea and the United States could resume.

In any case, Roh’s victory marked the end of an epoch in South Korean politics. This was the epoch of the “three Kims”: Kim Jong-pil [conservative prime minister, 1998-99, known for his hard line toward North Korea], Kim Young-sam [South Korea’s president from 1993 to 1998], and [incumbent President] Kim Dae-jung.

South Korea’s new president-elect faces two major challenges. One of them is internal: how to bring the country’s economy, which is susceptible to the current inertia of world markets, under control, while implementing full-scale political and administrative reforms. The other is external: how to build a relationship with North Korea while reconstructing the relationship with the United States, which was tattered by the difference of opinions over the South’s Sunshine Policy.

Following its traditional diplomatic pattern of “playing on contradictions,” North Korea is trying today, as before, to cause a clash between Seoul and Washington—as well as with Moscow, Tokyo, and Beijing—to continue receiving economic assistance from the South even as tensions intensify with the United States. It is also trying to play on Russia’s and Japan’s conciliatory tones, and China’s concerns that an economic collapse of the North could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe on the Chinese-North Korean border.

Seoul should not be acting on this issue alone, but rather should work in close cooperation with the major nuclear nations. The possibility of arranging a coordinated effort today is likely because it is not only the security of the Korean Peninsula that is at stake, but rather that of Northeast Asia as a whole. At the same time, Moscow, Washington, and Beijing, all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, agree with one another on the issue of nonproliferation of nuclear weapons; Tokyo, too, sees things similarly.

The dual strategy of “collective hostility” toward the North Korean regime on the one hand, and dialogue on the other, allows Seoul and the major nations to divide their functions. The United States, Russia, China, and to a certain extent Japan will focus on using a strategy of collective hostility in dealing with nuclear weapons nonproliferation issues, while South Korea will focus on engagement tactics.

The current situation in Korea has put Russia in a difficult spot in terms of its foreign policy. The crisis has clearly demonstrated the ineffectiveness of Moscow’s previous diplomacy in its relations with Pyongyang. Vladimir Putin wanted to show the world that one could deal with [North Korean ruler] Kim Jong Il [the two men have met three times in the past three years —WPR], but the North Korean leader “made a nuclear mess” and set up the Russian president instead.

Now, two of Moscow’s diplomatic interests have collided. The first is Russia’s interest as a large nuclear nation, which along with the United States bears a global responsibility for nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. Russia’s other interest involves its bilateral relationship with Pyongyang, the improvement of which has allowed Russia to strengthen its political position on the Korean Peninsula.

Prioritizing the first interest would make Russian-North Korean relations worse and weaken the position Moscow has achieved so far in settling the Korean crisis. However, ignoring the nuclear threat would not only lead to increased tensions between the United States and Russia, but also might bring about the creation of a new nuclear power that does not comply with the global nonproliferation regime on Russia’s border.  

Until now, Russia has been able to take a wait-and-see approach. This has worked for two reasons. The first is that both the United States’ attention and Russian-American discussions have been focused on Iraq. The second is that Russia has been able to point to the absence of absolute evidence that North Korea has nuclear weapons. 

Of course, Russia could push Pyongyang to restart dialogue with Washington and Seoul. However, such a victory would not earn Moscow the laurels of a principal peacemaker because, as in the past, it would not provide any guarantees that Pyongyang might not again decide to escalate the situation on the peninsula and play on contradictions in approaches taken by the countries involved in the conflict.