[OUTLOOK]Foreign policy? What’s that?

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[OUTLOOK]Foreign policy? What’s that?

An air of uneasiness pervades the outside world as it watches the 2002 presidential campaign in Korea. An influential Japanese daily, the Asahi Shimbun, recently printed an editorial that cautioned readers to watch the race carefully.

Both the front-runners, Lee Hoi-chang and Roh Moo-hyun, are enigmatic personalities to international observers. The candidates project a touch of insecurity as they stay focused solely on domestic issues. They waver according to public opinion on subjects ranging from polishing a North Korea policy to tackling the rage of recent anti-American protests.

Assuming this country's helm under slogans such as "a nation worth living in" or "politics anew" should be preceded by securely setting Korea's coordinates in the international landscape. A systematic and predictable strategy and program which assures the international community of a ready and responsible constituency should follow. Neither candidate is painting any grand picture of international policy or devising a coherent navigation plan on where they want to lead the country. The sole preoccupation with tactics to ascend to the throne drowns out all other relevant themes.

The dynamics surrounding the Korean Peninsula are as rocky as ever. Pyeongyang's sudden admission to the existence of a clandestine nuclear weapons program led to a heightening of tensions with Washington and a halt to talks with Tokyo aimed at establishing a long-sought diplomatic link between the two countries. Korean-American relations are squeaking along as the deaths of two school girls crushed by an American armored vehicle triggers widespread protests and tension on an unprecedented scale. And the Chinese-Russian thaw has many implications for the region.

In step with the 50th anniversary of the Korean-American alliance next year, a realignment of relations reflecting the new post-Cold War world is called for, accompanied by an effort to find North Korea a place in the international community. Korea's special alliance with Japan should be deepened, while we develop a competitive cooperation with China's new leadership. These daunting tasks are a multi-dimensional equation stemming from a web of intertwined interests among players in the regional landscape. Sketching a creative foreign policy that surpasses a mere sum of these demands is urgent.

Drawing a global strategy that incorporates Korea as the central figure of the Northeast Asian region is another top priority. Far from blindly rejecting the waves of globalization, we must adopt an attitude that actively absorbs global standards and manifests Korea's dynamics and developmental potential to its fullest.

Opening Korea's markets in sectors such as agriculture, medical and legal services, education and finance is becoming an immediate problem as Korea increasingly embraces the WTO system and the Doha Development Agenda. Fostering a coherent policy underpinned by a healthy domestic consensus is emerging as the national priority for the next administration.

Choosing our path as numerous free trade agreements are being drafted worldwide is another important issue. With the advent of the "ASEAN +3" structure, East Asia is rapidly becoming a competitive arena of open regionalism. Rivalry between Japan and China over assuming regional leadership is quietly growing. Choosing our survival tactics against a daunting and aggressive Chinese challenge can no longer be postponed.

Korean corporations stand at a crossroads between becoming a truly formidable world influence and being relegated to the back burner. The soundness of our labor policy is ranked 72d out of 75 nations surveyed, industrial productivity is 46th out of 49 and Korea is at the bottom in an evaluation of our appeal to outside investors. The regional honor student, Singapore, is scheming to use its close ties with Chinese capital now that export-led growth has reached its limits. Singapore is poised to become a corporate destination offering the lowest tax burden while boasting its status as a source of skilled Chinese talent. Korea must become another regional haven for prosperous corporations.

If we become submerged in further rounds of regional, generational and social bickering, we will have a new crisis. The next president should have a shrewd eye for domestic and international trends and how they will affect Korea's destiny. He must be immune to party politics and unwavering in tackling this country's most pressing issues by way of rational persuasion rooted in firm beliefs and personal will. Only then will we witness truly innovative leadership transcending the bounds of ideology. The presidential hopefuls need to give a sense of hope and reassurance to both domestic and international observers by embracing these tasks with conviction and healthy strategies.

* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Byun Sang-keun

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