New policymaker for North preceded by his reputation
The news coverage of President Roh Moo-hyun’s recent cabinet changes was dominated by the controversy between the president and the Uri Party about two of the new aides. But one other nominee, Lee Jong-seok, 48, to be unification minister, could have implications not only for North-South Korea relations but also for relations between Seoul and Washington.
Mr. Lee has been most recently the deputy head of the National Security Council at the Blue House, and has been a central and somewhat controversial figure in inter-Korean affairs. With his elevation to minister’s rank and with Mr. Roh’s intention to keep him on as head of the security council, he would in effect be in charge of Korea’s security and foreign policy in addition to his policy role on North Korea.
The minister-to-be has had a hand in those broad policymaking efforts in the past. He has been called the behind-the-scenes architect of those policies for the past three years; his new position will also bring him under more public and political opposition scrutiny as well as cement his position in the administration. Indeed, the conservative Grand National Party already has voiced its concern over the appointment.
In a statement, the Grand National Party called him a man standing at the center of an unstable security situation and one who has brought the U.S.-Korea alliance to its lowest point ever. That, the statement continued, “can only be explained as an act to curry favor with North Korea.”
Mr. Lee has done research on North Korea during his days as an academic, but he is said to have a much weaker understanding of the United States and its political and security policies. That perceived weakness, some say, could tip Korea’s foreign policy too far off center.
“Washington is certainly concerned that Seoul’s North Korean policy will lean further to the left,” said Peter Beck, director of the International Crisis Group’s Seoul office. He said it was too early to predict what kind of a public political leader Mr. Lee will be. Some critics add that with only three years of public service under his belt, he is too bureaucratically inexperienced to hold several key administration positions simultaneously.
Mr. Lee seems aware that Washington has not been thrilled by his nomination. He reportedly commented recently that he would have to work hard to change his reputation in the U.S. government. That could be an uphill struggle.
“There are many people in Washington who see Mr. Lee as the primary source of changes in the South Korea-U.S. alliance that, at least in Washington’s eyes, had no flaws until Seoul wanted changes made,” said one Western diplomat based in Seoul who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He is not exactly popular,”
The South Korea-U.S. security alliance has seen a major shift since the Roh administration came into power. Seoul has clamored for a more equal footing in the alliance, and that desire has been accommodated, sometimes grudgingly and at other times with a speed that probably went beyond what the Korean administration wanted. U.S. forces here are being cut back by a third and the remainder redeployed to rear areas, leaving the Korean Army to defend the areas adjacent to the Demilitarized Zone and to take on defense functions that U.S. forces had handled in the past. The troop shifts are scheduled to be complete by 2008.
Seoul’s search for its own role has given birth to concepts that the Roh administration has dubbed a “balancer role” in the region. Mr. Lee had a large role in devising that policy, which has led to some head-scratching in the Pentagon and at Foggy Bottom about how a military ally can also be a mediator for the target of the alliance.
Mr. Lee has an extensive background in North Korean affairs. He holds a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Sungkyunkwan University. After working briefly, he returned to the same university for a master’s degree and then a doctorate in political science with a specialization in North Korean politics.
After receiving his Ph.D., he lectured at several universities here and in 1994 became a researcher at the Sejong Institute, a private institution studying national security and inter-Korean relations.
In 2002, he joined Mr. Roh’s presidential campaign team, He had worked as an advisor to the Unification Ministry and traveled with Kim Dae-jung to Pyongyang in 2000 during the first meeting of the North and South Korean leaders.
He caught the eye of Lim Dong-won, Kim Dae-jung’s unification minister and the architect of Mr. Kim’s “sunshine policy,” who mentored him and introduced him to the liberal political thinkers who began gaining the upper hand here during the Kim and especially in the Roh administrations.
Branded by his critics as a man who cares more about North Korea than the U.S.-Korea alliance, Mr. Lee has in fact been a critic of the North’s regime. But, his supporters contend, he tries to see North Korea from an internal perspective, not just as an outside critic. And in some of his writings, those defenders say, he has indeed found fault with the North Korean system.
A look at some of his publications and media interviews tends to support that defense. In a 2000 book, “Understanding Contemporary North Korea,” Mr. Lee said that the North’s juche (self-reliance) ideology is blocking any social development in the North. He also conceded that from a military perspective, North Korea is indeed an “enemy” of the South because of the military threat it poses.
He appears to have at least a practical, if not ideological, appreciation of the U.S. role here. In an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo last April, he said, “South Korea and the United States share the same values and goals in democracy and a market economy. There might be some irksome exchange between the two countries, but there is a solidarity that is hard to disconnect. The South Korea-U.S. alliance is very useful to us, and through it we can increase the role of South Korea in the Northeast Asia region.”
That pragmatic approach was also reflected in his role in persuading the Blue House to dispatch Korean troops to Iraq as part of the military coalition there. With the conservative opposition calling for a large contingent of fighting troops and many in the administration pushing to rebuff Washington flatly, Mr. Lee won agreement for the dispatch of a brigade, but of engineering and medical troops. Because of that recommendation and some others, Mr. Lee’s liberal credentials reportedly seem suspect to some of Mr. Roh’s inner circle. Several observers say that his appointment as unification minister was far from an attempt to distance Seoul further from Washington; it was a compromise choice that favored reality over ideology.
At a workshop for newly elected Uri Party lawmakers in December 2003, Mr. Lee said, “The main reason, publicly and privately in the administration, for dispatching troops to Iraq is the Korea-U.S. alliance.”
Under new procedures that took effect last July, the National Assembly will question Mr. Lee before he takes over the ministry, but has no power to block his appointment. The Grand National Party may not participate in those hearings, although that is not certain. The party has been boycotting the Assembly’s work because of its opposition to unrelated legislation, but the results of a party vote earlier this week could lead to an end to that boycott. Without the conservative opposition in attendance, Mr. Lee is likely to emerge from the hearings with scarcely a hair on his head ruffled.
Concern about relations with the United States, however, is only part of the conservative distaste for the administration’s policy of rapprochement with North Korea. South Korean prisoners of war from the 1950s are believed to be alive still in the North, and other Koreans kidnapped there after the war are also deserving of Seoul’s attention, conservatives believe. Human rights abuses in North Korea also draw horrified commentary from conservatives here, and Korean liberals occasionally show some discomfort as they assert that human rights and prisoners must take second place to the development of better ties with the North. Seoul has sent massive amounts of aid to the North, especially fertilizer and rice, and critics ask why no strings of any sort have been attached to that aid.
That criticism will continue, and Mr. Lee’s new position will put him in a more exposed position. As always here, interesting times are probably ahead.
by Brian Lee