[Viewpoint] New chance for President Lee

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[Viewpoint] New chance for President Lee

Many say luck is on President Lee Myung-bak’s side. A series of corruption scandals involving his aides and relatives has been eclipsed by the bombshell news of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s death. That may not entirely be a joke. An administration that has been a sinking boat due to a lack of urgency or connection with the people, revolving-door appointments and corruption scandals now has a chance to plug its leaks depending on how it handles North Korean affairs following Kim’s sudden death.

If the president exercises wise and resolute leadership, he can not only restore some of his popularity but also go down in history as perhaps one of the most important Korean leaders of modern times.

The circumstances and complicated equations of inter-Korean relations and how they are impacted by other countries are now completely different from in the past. For the time being, the ruling system in Pyongyang won’t change because Kim had already prepared for the transition of power to his third son Kim Jong-un. But some snags are inevitable due to the absence of an almost omnipotent strongman. The new heir, with the help of the ruling class in Pyongyang, should be able to run a tight ship at home.

But the foreign front is a different matter. There is a chance the young and inexperienced leader could pursue some changes in the rigidly controlled economic system and make some changes to inter-Korean relations to resolve the country’s food and economic problems. Moreover, South Korea is not the same country as it was the past when, due to its vivid memories of the war, resentment and knee-jerk suspicion prevailed among the population. Now more people have sympathy for the North Koreans. Both Koreas can no longer rely on a contest that is purely in the realm of physical strength.

While this remnant of the cold war - a sundered peninsula - has lasted over 60 years, the status of major allies to the two Koreas has changed dramatically. China has steadily built up its economic and military power over the last decades, rising to become the main challenger to the U.S. on the global stage.

North Korean policy cannot be entirely worked through connections with Washington and Beijing. Seoul and Washington were unaware of Kim’s death until it was formerly announced two days later by North Korean TV. The Chinese president, who apparently was notified, is not in the habit of making helpful phone calls to his South Korean counterpart.

We must move beyond the mindsets of old and develop an entirely new approach to North Korean and foreign affairs. The government has been right to shift from its rigid, hardline position and by offering consolations to the North Korean people and allowing a few civilian delegates to attend Kim’s funeral. Through the momentum of Kim’s death, the government can ease conflicts with the liberal sector and draw a conciliatory response from Pyongyang.

What is important from now on is South Korea’s stance between the two superpowers, the U.S. and China.

Victor Cha, professor at Georgetown University and former director of Asian affairs at the White House, wrote in a recent contribution to the New York Times that China will likely work against any democratic changes in return for support from South Korea or the U.S. Beijing wants the continuation of the status quo, a divided peninsula so it can wield the most influence over poor but resources-rich North Korea.

For South Korea, there are no easy solutions. President Lee should demonstrate highly sophisticated statesmanship combined with a strong will. He must employ the trust he built with Washington leaders to build a new level of relations with Beijing. But he should not kowtow if Beijing acts bossy.

To South Korea, the alliance with the U.S. is most important. Beijing no longer is afraid of the U.S. or preoccupied with its close ties with South Korea. If President Lee is able to come up with a breakthrough and pave a new direction in relations with North Korea as well as the two superpowers, it will be his biggest accomplishment - and it will write a new page in history.

*The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Ahn Hee-chang
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