South Korea joins conservative trend

Nicholas Eberstadt:

Last week's presidential election in South Korea presages a sea change in that key U.S. ally's policies toward North Korea. The resounding defeat of the candidates who favored more of Seoul's all-carrot, no-stick approach to Kim Jong Il presents Washington with a horizon of new possibilities for reining in Asia's most troublesome dictator. The question now is whether the Bush foreign policy team will be adept enough to seize this opportunity.

The landslide vote, to be sure, was in large measure a rebuke of President Roh Moo-hyun's inept handling of the economy and polarizing domestic policies. Yet, taken together, the candidates who opposed the "Peace and Prosperity" policy (originally dubbed "Sunshine") toward North Korea in last Wednesday's election received more than 63 percent of the vote -- compared with 35 percent for all those who approved of it. Why the widespread discontent with "sunshine"? Because what had started as a policy of reconciliation with the North had degenerated in practice into almost reflexive appeasement of the "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il. Unsurprisingly, many ordinary Koreans found that kind of "sunshine" too distasteful, too embarrassing and just a bit too dangerous.

South Koreans winced as their government repeatedly abstained from U.N. votes criticizing North Korea for human rights abuses. They grumbled as they saw their tax-funded "economic cooperation" projects with the North devolve into an economic lifeline for a still-hostile government in Pyongyang. And they worried as the undisguised rift with Washington over "the North Korean threat" created unmistakable strains in the vital U.S.-South Korean alliance.

South Korea, in short, is ready for a new and more critical approach to engagement with North Korea -- and this is just what President-elect Lee Myung-bak has promised. Lee is no Cold Warrior: He styles himself as a pragmatist who judges by results. Since his election, he has signaled that restoring the health of the U.S.-South Korean alliance and achieving a genuine denuclearization of the North Korean regime are to be top foreign policy priorities. He has also served notice to Pyongyang that it can no longer count on Seoul for a "see-no-evil" spin on events in the North -- much less unconditional handouts.

There would seem to be great promise in this new attitude toward "engagement with the North" -- to say nothing of new vistas for genuine cooperation between the United States and South Korea on the multifaceted North Korea problem.

With Seoul finally willing to criticize Kim Jong Il' s gulag "paradise," for example, an effective worldwide human rights campaign in the name of the North Korean people comes much closer to reality. With a South Korean government that no longer insists on sitting on the sidelines, the Proliferation Security Initiative to interdict illicit North Korean revenue (from drug-running, counterfeiting, weapons sales and the like) stands to be much more effective -- and that much more costly to Kim Jong Il. No longer a "runaway ally," South Korea could at last join with the United States and Japan in a common policy to bring real pressure on North Korea for real denuclearization -- and to impose real penalties for noncompliance.

...

It is unfortunate that the South Koreans waited until the last year of the Bush administration to put someone in who is willing to take effective action. They need to push the North beyond the tipping point and quit subsidizing tyranny.

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