South Korea: New Leadership in the ROK – President ROH’s Main Challenge


Richard Broinowski

Liberal reformer, Roh Moo-hyun, was inaugurated as president of the Republic of Korea on 25 February 2003. He leads a younger generation in facing several major internal policy challenges, including how to tackle changes in the economy, the society and the business environment. Some of these were canvassed at a conference in Sydney on 13 February organised by the Research Institute for Asia and the Pacific at Sydney University (RIAP) and the Australia-Korea Business Council.

All internal economic policy decisions are, however, subordinate to a much more pressing issue for Roh - how to predict and manage the challenges to the Republic’s security posed by the dangerous drift towards military confrontation between the United States and North Korea.

Since the collapse of the 1994 Framework Arrangements, North Korea has abrogated the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, ejected International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, and re-commissioned one of its nuclear reactors to make more plutonium. It may also have started to re-process its existing store of spent fuel to extract the plutonium for bombs, or started to enrich uranium in its enrichment plant. It may already have a couple of nuclear weapons.

President Bush’s hardliners believe in increasing pressure on Pyongyang. Their policy inclination is to decline North Korea's requests for direct talks, keep it isolated, and threaten to destroy its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and elsewhere with military strikes. They refuse to acknowledge what is obvious to most informed observers. The North’s brinksmanship is a desperate attempt to gain Washington’s attention, and thereby hold negotiations to secure three things. It wants a promise from the United States not to attack it, not to attempt regime change by overthrowing Kim Jong Il’s government, and not to impede North Korean economic development through embargoes or other sanctions. Hardliners in the US believe time is on their side - either the North Korean government will collapse or simply capitulate to American demands.

These assumptions are dangerous. The North Koreans are in a desperate mood. Sudden and unpredictable consequences could follow any likelihood of American military action, including a pre-emptive artillery strike on Seoul from North Korean artillery ranged just north of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) along the 38th parallel.

Dr Peter Hayes, Australian Director of the Californian-based Nautilus Institute, and a long-time analyst of the Korean situation observes that, unless it acts immediately to start negotiations, the United States could end up with a nuclear-armed North Korea. It would then have no military option, and a ruptured relationship with South Korea, already degraded by widespread popular resentment at the presence and behaviour of American troops. Other consequences could include President Roh Moo-hyun restarting the ROK’s own dormant nuclear weapons program, and Japan, a nuclear threshold country, declaring its own nuclear weapons status. Either event would profoundly affect the strategic situation in North East Asia, and put all of the economic plans of the new South Korean government firmly on the backburner.

The Bush Team has been vacillating between ‘we won’t talk to Pyongyang’, ‘we will talk, but not negotiate’, ‘we won’t negotiate, but our proxies may’, and ‘we will negotiate if the North satisfies our demands first.’ Perhaps President Roh Moo-hyun and his new team of advisers will be able to inject another alternative into Bush’s strategy in handling the North. ‘We will talk, and the objective will be for you to trade in your nuclear weapons for a bilateral security relationship’. As Hayes suggests, this could even include handing over Pyongyang’s rolodex of terrorist contacts and North Korea joining the war on terrorism.

WATCHPOINT: In this post 9/11 world of chaos and instability, anything is possible.


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