[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]A better 2004 in store for Korea?The end of 2003 finds optimism quietly returning to Korea. The improving world economy has started to lift the Korean economy and fears of an impending conflict between the United States and North Korea have waned. Frustration with politicians in Seoul has reached record levels, but improving economic and geopolitical conditions have made much of the political infighting irrelevant. If these trends continue, 2004 promises to be better than 2003, but lingering dangers could bring a reversal of fortune.
The first danger is domestic politics. Political tension will rise steadily before the National Assembly elections in April. At present, none of the three major parties has captured the momentum, leaving the door open to surprises. Though the Grand National Party looks strong now, it has failed to update its image and stands to lose seats.
The fate of the Our Open Party is tied to that of an unpopular president, making it difficult for the party to expand its base. The logical beneficiaries of this situation are the Millennium Democratic Party and independents and splinter groups.
As investigations into political funding scandals continue, the National Assembly may decide to move against the president before the April election. The Grand National Party is eager to impeach, but the Millennium Democratic Party may balk because it has more to gain by keeping Mr. Roh in power as a “dependent president” than from a new presidential election that will be difficult to win.
The second danger is North Korea. The U.S. invasion of Iraq and the war on terror have left North Korea no choice but to give up its nuclear ambitions.
President George W. Bush is in a stronger position for re-election than Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were at the same point in their first terms, and both men were re-elected by landslides. If Howard Dean becomes the Democratic nominee, Mr. Bush will be on course for a landslide of historic proportions, which would free him to govern as if he had already been re-elected. North Korea will thus have no room to take advantage of election-year politics in the United States.
Political turmoil in South Korea will not work in North Korea’s favor because the public is not interested in further engagement with North Korea with so much uncertainty at home. This also makes it difficult for North Korea to drive a deeper wedge between South Korean public opinion and U.S. policy toward North Korea. With little room for brinkmanship with the United States, North Korea will most likely choose to seek a Libyan-style face-saving way out of its current predicament.
Prospects for 2004 thus hinge on a resolution to the deepening political uncertainty. An early and decisive resolution will allow the government to focus on measures to strengthen the economy.
It will allow the government to focus attention on helping North Korea achieve a face-saving exit from nuclear brinkmanship. Above all, it will provide a sense of stability from which optimism about the future grows. The public knows this and will soon demand an end to the political uncertainty of the permanent campaign.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser