[TODAY]'Where's this guy coming from?'

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[TODAY]'Where's this guy coming from?'


"Roh who?"

Even to distinguished U.S. experts on Korean affairs who gathered at the Korea-U.S. 21st Century Forum last Monday and Tuesday, the name Roh Moo-hyun didn't quite ring a bell. Everyone seemed to be curious about how a relatively unknown politician like Mr. Roh could be leading the Millennium Democratic Party's presidential primaries, ahead of Rhee In-je, and even besting the Grand National Party's Lee Hoi-chang in the popularity polls. Right now, it is hard to answer that question.

One U.S. scholar even joked that U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney must regret having met Lee Hoi-chang in Washington in January. Thanks to the near-assumption that he would be the next Korean president, Mr. Lee received the highest honors that a visiting foreign opposition leader could receive from the Bush administration. In only three months, the efforts of the White House and the State Department appear to have been for naught.

The first U.S. expert to deal with the "Roh-phoon" directly was, not surprisingly, James A. Kelly, the assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the State Department. On April 4, Mr. Kelly said in a speech to the Asia Society in Washington, "No one can predict the way democracy develops. The United States must keep in mind that Korea's next leader could redefine the U.S.-Korea relations by challenging the traditional role of the United States in Korean affairs. The United States must follow the presidential election in Korea closely and must cooperate closely with whomever becomes Korea's next leader."

Mr. Kelly did not mention the name Roh Moo-hyun in his speech, but it can be safely assumed that the challenger he must have had in mind was Mr. Roh. U.S. Korea-watchers who know a bit about Mr. Roh's ideological tendencies saw Mr. Kelly's speech as a caution that a politician even more liberal than President Kim Dae-jung could become the next Korean leader.

Naturally, Americans want to know Mr. Roh's position on the stationing of U.S. troops in Korea. Mr. Roh so far has kept his statements on the issue vague. He must sooner or later organize and clarify his position in his campaign speeches and in debates. It must also be pointed out that aside from being a supporter of the "sunshine" policy, Mr. Roh has not revealed any opinions of his own on North Korea policies. How can he possibly run for the presidency without touching upon such an important matter? Another clarification required from Mr. Roh is on the allegations that he said the major newspapers in Korea should be nationalized. There are some in the United States who wonder if Mr. Roh, if indeed he said such a thing, is not more a reactionary than a liberal.

The U.S. government and outside analysts will be starting to look at Roh Moo-hyun more concretely. The first clues they will find will be Mr. Roh's controversial rhetorical record. U.S. pundits might find the speech Mr. Roh gave at the site of the Hyundai Heavy Industry Co., Ltd. strikes in 1989 about "a world that is the workers own" an echo of Peronism.

Argentina's dictator Juan Peron was more famous as the husband of the "Don't cry for me, Argentina" Evita Peron, but he was also a champion of laborers in the 1940s and 1950s. As labor minister, he supported labor rights against the party line of the military government he was a part of. He became president with the support of laborers and later seized dictatorial power. Mr. Roh's egalitarianism, his compromising attitude on market economy, his passion for social welfare and redistribution of wealth and his call for union representatives to participate in management could clash with U.S. President George W. Bush's neoliberalism.

Mr. Bush has found a sturdy ally in Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who believes in free competition and self-regulating markets. Should Korea stray too far from this line, it could find itself isolated from its two most powerful allies. Any sour notes in Korea-U.S. relations would seriously affect the two countries' cooperation in their policies towards North Korea.

Mr. Roh will have a flock of international affairs advisers sooner or later, no doubt. But with only eight months until the presidential election, there has never been a "national" candidate like Mr. Roh, who has no international experience or background. Should Mr. Roh become president without any global senses, Korea will suffer and Mr. Roh will suffer. We've had too many suffering presidents so far.

Election campaigns are a good classroom for presidential candidates. Roh Moo-hyun must define and refine the roughly sketched opinions he offered in the past, not only for the puzzled people of Washington but primarily for the voters here.


The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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