[OUTLOOK]'Dynamic Korea' announces itself

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[OUTLOOK]'Dynamic Korea' announces itself

Hooray, the best man won! We know he's the best, because he did win. That's the faith of democracy: Trusted to pick their leader, the people will choose wisely more often than not. So congratulations, Roh Moo-hyun, you are our president now, and we want you to succeed.

Congratulations, too, to Lee Hoi-chang. Losers are also essential to democracy, because they provide the alternative that compels the people to choose. Putting up a good fight, and then accepting defeat, are services to democracy that are too easily overlooked.

Third, let's congratulate the Korean people. During the campaign, there was much punditry about the "fateful" choice confronting Koreans. Elections are always important, but I don't think this one was particularly "fateful." Either man was a plausible president. Some-times democracies throw up dangerous candidates ?unstable or demagogic ?and sometimes they win. Not in Korea, not this time. The voters were given clear alternatives involving real policy differences; but neither candidate would have been a disaster or a disgrace for Korea.

The best presidents are lucky presidents, and Mr. Roh comes to office with some lucky auspices. Korea's economy -- despite all the grumbling about too much regulation, too little transparency and so forth -- is in good shape.

Because Kim Dae-jung defined his presidency by his "sunshine" policy toward North Korea, his achievement in rescuing the economy from the 1997 financial crisis is insufficiently appreciated. The first time Mr. Roh's economic advisers drop some headache on his desk, the new president need only look across the sea to Japan, where restructuring is mired in bureaucratic inertia and political cravenness, and count his blessings.

It has been widely noted that this election marked the end of the "three Kims" era. Kim Dae-jung, Kim Young-sam and Kim Jong-pil were the power brokers of Korea's transition from dictatorship to democracy, and the first two were elected president. Now they pass from the scene. In the course of the campaign, generational change arrived. A sharp line ran through the electorate at age 45. Those older were heavily for Mr. Lee; those younger, for Mr. Roh.

These youngsters are "Dynamic Korea," and they proved unstoppable. Not even Chung Mong-joon's stunning repudiation of his promise to back Mr. Roh -- literally at the 11th hour on election eve -- derailed them. Why did Mr. Chung do it? One theory, necessarily speculative until Mr. Chung explains himself, is that he tried to sabotage Mr. Roh in hopes of postponing the generational change until 2007 -- when he could ride the wave to the presidency. Too late.

Mr. Lee himself sensed the wave late in the campaign when, behind in the polls and increasingly desperate, he tried to reinvent himself as a candidate of change. He attended a candlelight vigil for the girls killed by the U.S. Army vehicle. He threw out a laundry list of constitutional and other changes designed to shake up Korea's politics. Too late.

Thus Mr. Roh's victory, though by only about 2 percent, provided him a much stronger mandate than Mr. Lee would have had with the same size victory. On the sensitive issue of the 37,000 U.S. troops in Korea, however, it may not make much difference. Mr. Lee, had he won, would have proved a pricklier alliance member than the U.S. administration might have hoped. He noticed that the Korean people want a greater say in their alliance with the United States, and that they are rather forgiving of Pyeong-yang's erratic ways. Thus the Roh policy, in watered form, would have become the Lee policy. Washington is better off dealing with a Korean president who believes in the Roh policy.

North Korea policy will be the new president's most important job, and the one most difficult to get right. The campaign appeared to offer a clear choice between a hawk and a dove. In the real world, as Mr. Roh is about to learn, choices are rarely so clear. Events threaten to spin out of control, and policy often must be invented on the fly.

Still, it helps to know what your goal is. Mr. Lee thought the sunshine policy had failed; Mr. Roh wanted to extend it. A year from now it may still be unclear who was right, for the policy that will emerge, in coordination with the United States and Korea's Asian neighbors, is less likely to be pure stick or pure carrot than some combination of the two. Then that policy will be judged on its merits, and President Roh will be proclaimed a genius by his backers and a dunce by his detractors.

But that is for the future to know. Today we have a new president-elect, and everything seems possible. Education will be reformed, politics will be cleansed, the books will be balanced and Koreans will know peace. Why not? That's what they voted for.

* The writer is editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by Hal Piper

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