January 2008 Dispatch - South Korea's New President: An Opportunity for Closer Ties with the United States

We are pleased to bring you the first dispatch of the new year in our series of Shorenstein APARC Dispatches. This month's piece comes from David Straub, this year's Pantech Fellow. Straub served thirty years in the U.S. Department of State, specializing in Northeast Asian affairs, including as the Department's director of Korean and of Japanese affairs. Since leaving the State Department last year, he has taught U.S.-Korean relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Seoul National University's Graduate School of International Studies. At Shorenstein APARC, he is writing a book on U.S.-South Korean relations.

In December 2007, for the first time ever, South Koreans, anxious about the economy, elected a businessman as their president. Pro-growth conservative Lee Myung-bak won a resounding victory, with 49 percent of the vote, over left-center candidate Chung Dong-young, who won only 26 percent. Lee's margin would have been even greater had it not been for the late entry into the race by another conservative, Lee Hoi-chang, who finished third with 15 percent.

Korean voters had become tired of ten years of rule by the left-center, and they saw incumbent President Roh Moo-hyun as confrontational and ineffective. By contrast, Lee, a former Hyundai Engineering and Construction CEO, has a reputation for being a pragmatic, can-do leader. As mayor of Seoul (2002-2006), he beautified the city and reformed its mass transit system.

Lee is scheduled to be inaugurated on February 25 for a single five-year term, but he faces two early challenges. First, just before the election, the left-center camp passed a bill establishing a special prosecutor to investigate allegations that Lee had been involved in business fraud and other corruption. The special prosecutor is supposed to announce his findings before the inauguration. A regular prosecutor earlier found the charges to be unfounded, and most observers think that the special prosecutor will not turn up significant new information.

Second, President-elect Lee must counter centrifugal forces in the conservative party ahead of parliamentary elections on April 5. Lee Hoi-chang's defection has already split the conservative camp, and now President-elect Lee and former conservative party leader Park Geun-hye (daughter of the late President Park Chung Hee) are feuding over how much say each should have in choosing candidates for the parliamentary election.

If President-elect Lee is cleared by the special prosecutor and if he successfully manages relations with Park, Lee's party will likely win a very large majority in the parliamentary election, offering him the opportunity to be a strong and effective executive.

As president, Lee will face two long-term challenges. First, as Lee has promised Korean voters, he must strengthen the economy. While the Korean economy has been growing at a rate of about 5 percent in recent years, the average Korean has felt hard-pressed by large increases in housing and education costs. Lee plans to focus on deregulation and attracting foreign investment. He has, however, already been forced to scale back his promise of 7 percent annual growth to 6 percent at least for his first year in office.

Second, although North Korea was not a major issue in the election campaign, due to the apparent progress in Six-Party talks to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program, many experts are skeptical that North Korea will fully abandon its nuclear ambitions. Lee supports engagement of North Korea and continued humanitarian aid, but he has said he will not provide major economic aid to North Korea until it ends its nuclear weapons program. This marks a significant departure from the policy of his predecessors Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung. A renewal of tensions with North Korea could threaten South Korean economic growth and Lee's popularity.

Lee strongly supports South Korea's alliance with the United States. He may seek talks with the United States to adjust or delay implementation of agreements reached in recent years to reduce the United States' role in South Korea's defense. Lee also supports early ratification of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA), the largest U.S. free trade agreement since NAFTA. (The U.S. Congress has not yet approved the U.S.-Korea FTA.)

Many experts believe that the near coincidence of Lee's election and the inauguration of a new U.S. administration in January 2009 offers a major opportunity to strengthen U.S.-South Korean relations. Shorenstein APARC and the New York-based Korea Society recently announced the formation of a study group of senior former U.S. officials and experts to issue a report and recommendations on how the next U.S. administration can work with President Lee. The study group will travel to Seoul in early February for meetings with President-elect Lee and his economic, foreign policy, and security advisors.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the election of Lee was that Koreans did not think it remarkable. They simply took it for granted that the election would be free, fair, and peaceful. Yet it has only been twenty years since South Koreans literally forced a military-backed government to allow them to vote democratically for their chief executive. In those two decades, there have been five presidential elections, with Lee's victory making the second full-fledged transfer of power between political camps. Moreover, this election was conducted at very low cost, using public funds; companies were not "squeezed" for campaign contributions as in the past. South Korea has demonstrated itself to be, along with Australia and New Zealand, the most democratic country in East Asia and a model of political development for the entire international community.