[Overseas View]A litmus test for presidential contenders

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[Overseas View]A litmus test for presidential contenders

South Korean opinion leaders are abuzz with speculation over why the Bush administration changed its policy toward North Korea and what implications progress at the six-party talks would have for South Korea’s presidential election.
The arguments being put forth by candidates and parties on this issue will provide valuable insight into which presidential candidate is truly fit to protect South Korea’s national interests.
Conservative candidates fear that Bush’s “betrayal” will cost them a return to power, while progressives rush to capitalize on an inter-Korean summit to salvage their lagging popularity.
The conservative argument blames Bush for providing the same type of opening to progressives that occurred immediately prior to the 2002 elections when nationwide candlelight demonstrations were organized to protest acquittals in a U.S. military trial of two American G.I.’s involved in a fatal traffic accident that killed two Korean schoolgirls.
This time, the Roh administration’s clear failure to prevent North Korea’s nuclear test could be replaced by a pre-election success if indeed implementing the Feb. 13 agreement freezes North Korea’s nuclear program and opens the way to denuclearization. But the agreement also paves the way for a more activist policy toward North Korea, including the possibility of an inter-Korean or even a three-way U.S.-DPRK-ROK peace summit. Conservatives judge that such a breakthrough would shake up domestic politics and cost them a return to power.
The North has already inserted itself into South Korean domestic politics by publicly opposing the Grand National Party, raising the possibility that the North Korean leadership may make unprecedented concessions to influence South Korean presidential elections.
However, North Korea may harden its position with the election of a new South Korean president.
The conservative presumption is that Bush may be duped by North Korea while perpetuating progressive leadership in South Korea.
But what if the Feb. 13 agreement truly is a window of opportunity to induce concessions that might indeed lead to denuclearization, normalization and peace on the Korean Peninsula?
Should the opportunity be sacrificed solely so that conservatives can return to power? National interest or personal ambition ― which is a greater motivation for opposition policy makers in their efforts to protect a sizable lead as they prepare for the presidential election?
South Korean progressives are emboldened by the Bush administration’s sudden shift in policy. The North Korean nuclear test has brought about a change in tactics along the lines that the Roh administration has been arguing for since the beginning of the nuclear crisis. Suddenly, progressives strategize that an inter-Korean summit could mobilize Korean national feelings for reunification and with a single stroke transform four years of deepening stagnation and disappointment into euphoria and renewed popularity.
But in the rush to have an inter-Korean summit, what tangible progress will be made to improve South Korea’s security situation vis-a-vis the North? Can a symbolic summit that appeals only to the emotions be in South Korea’s national security interest?
Given North Korea’s interference in South Korea’s election process, what credible motives on the part of the North can one imagine for pursuing a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations in the waning months of a lame-duck administration?
Surely South Korean progressives do not believe that they can retain power by accepting North Korea’s offer of a nuclear umbrella on the basis of a single nuclear test and a handful of nuclear weapons.
This would be a prescription for joining North Korea in isolation against a unified international consensus that a nuclear Korean Peninsula is unacceptable. It would risk South Korea’s political standing and economic stability for an elusive populist nationalist dream. Some commentators have urged that the South Korean public should ignore efforts by North Korea to insert itself into the campaign as well as desperate efforts by current power holders to capitalize on the lessening of tensions for their own political purposes. I doubt that even an inter-Korean breakthrough will sway South Korean voters from focusing on pressing South Korean domestic economic and social problems.
But Korean voters should scrutinize how the candidates are positioning themselves on inter-Korean relations.
No current issue is more likely to reveal which candidate is best suited to lead South Korea by showing that they are willing to place South Korea’s national interests above their own personal and party ambitions for power.

*The writer is a senior associate at the Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS. The views expressed here are personal views. He can be reached at ssnyder@asiafound-dc.org.

by Scott Snyder
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