Can South Korea's new president handle the neighbors?

Can South Korea's new president handle the neighbors?

Can South Korea's new president handle the neighbors?

What the foreign papers are saying.
Feb. 25 2003 11:44 PM

NK Panky

When North Korea test-fired a missile into the Sea of Japan shortly before South Korea's new president, Roh Moo-hyun, was sworn in Tuesday, there was no doubting what will top the new leader's agenda.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.

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The Financial Times reported that Roh's inauguration speech called North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons program a grave threat to world peace and said the Pyongyang regime faced a choice between making atomic bombs and receiving international aid, but he did not mention the missile test. Roh, who won a very narrow election victory last December thanks in large part to a wave of anti-Americanism, has condemned the United States' refusal to negotiate with North Korea, and he has called for a "more equitable and reciprocal relationship" with Washington. The Korea Times reported that Roh proposed an enhanced role for Seoul and Tokyo in defusing the nuclear standoff, telling Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, "South Korea and Japan are geographically closer to North Korea and therefore can exert greater influence" on Pyongyang.

Hong Kong's South China Morning Post said President Roh's most urgent priority must be to repair his country's relationship with the United States. "You would expect him to know that South Korea's survival in the last half century had been due to the American military alliance, and that the alliance remains crucial to his country's continued survival. … It is vital for Mr Roh to begin to act like an ally of the US, not North Korea." The editorial concluded: "It would not be wise for South Korea to put all its eggs in the North Korean basket before the North demonstrates that it has fundamentally changed. And judging from its recent behaviour, North Korea is still far from being a respectable and responsible member of the international community."

Roh pledged to continue the "sunshine policy" of engagement with North Korea initiated by his predecessor Kim Dae-jung, but he announced a name change, opting instead to call it "the policy of peace and prosperity." The Straits Times of Singapore explained the change "was made 'due to some antipathy' to [Kim's] hallmark policy, which has been criticised by opponents who call it appeasement." The Korea Herald added, "In view of the mounting criticism of the way his predecessor implemented his 'sunshine policy' of engagement, the new President added reciprocity, transparency, citizens' participation and bipartisan support as new ingredients for the basic North policy."

The Age of Melbourne encouraged the United States to ease its isolation of Pyongyang. An editorial observed: "North Korea's internal position is no less desperate than that of Iraq. Indeed, it is worse because it has no oil with which to trade. It has few tradeable commodities of any kind and cannot produce enough food to feed its people, who continue to be oppressed by the despotic regime." If the current mood of threats and nuclear blackmail is not checked, Japan has warned it would strike pre-emptively, a path that would enrage China. "Given that it will almost certainly be China that must mediate between North Korea and the US and its allies, the sooner the talking starts the better."

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The South China Morning Post noted a new dimension in Sino-U.S. relations, despite the apparent inability of Secretary of State Colin Powell to persuade the Chinese government to change its views on Iraq or North Korea during his visit to Beijing earlier this week. "China and the US are increasingly able to talk—regularly and deeply—about a range of issues without the sticking points that inevitably arise detracting from the wider points of the enterprise." Regarding North Korea, it isn't clear how much influence China has over the Pyongyang regime, "nor is it likely that China's leaders want to be seen to be doing America's bidding, even if China would prefer its border with North Korea stable and nuclear-free," but it is "a source of considerable comfort" to know that communication between the two nations is vastly improved.