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Oberdorfer: S. Korean President-Elect to Focus on Economy, Trust with North

Interviewee: Don Oberdorfer, Chairman of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
December 20, 2007

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Don Oberdorfer, a leading expert on North and South Korea, says the president-elect of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak, is likely to focus on tackling economic problems that dominated voters’ concerns. He described Lee as “business-like and straightforward,” bringing to bear his experience as former mayor of Seoul and as a high-powered executive with Hyundai, South Korea’s leading conglomerate. On North Korea, Oberdorfer says, Lee wants to “create a greater sense of trust between North and South Korea, which he says is lacking, and it certainly is.”

In South Korea, the presidential election has ended with Lee Myung-bak, the former mayor of Seoul, winning handily. Does this foretell a major change in South Korea?

Yes, of course, when you have a major shift of this sort. He was not running against the incumbent, Roh Moo-hyun, who by law could not stand for re-election, but against the incumbent party, the Centrist Reformists Democratic Party. The progressives have been in office now for about ten years. The fact that Lee, who is more conservative, from the opposition Grand National Party, has won the election, I don’t think indicates a drastic or dramatic change in South Korea’s international stance, toward North Korea, for example. That wasn’t much of an issue in the campaign. But when you have a change like this, lots of things change in terms of foreign policy, and there will be shifts that are discernable, even though in themselves they may not indicate any kind of radical change.

Have you ever met the new president?

I met Lee Myung-bak twice this year for fairly extensive conversations—in February and again in September. He seemed to be quite comfortable—he was much more confident, of course, in September than he had been in February. He is business-like and straightforward. In February he pulled out a little notebook from his coat and started making notes on what we were talking about.

What had he done before becoming Seoul’s mayor?

He had been a former executive with Hyundai, South Korea’s leading conglomerate, which has given him some overseas experience, in the Middle East for example, that few South Korean presidents have had. He’s the first businessman to be elected president in South Korea, and that means he’s actually run something—which is positive. He’s not just a politician who all his life has done nothing but talk.

Now I take it the public was most concerned about the economy. Is South Korea’s economy really in a troubling condition?

From an external point of view, it’s doing beautifully. But from the point of view of people who actually live there, they don’t think a 5 percent or 7 percent growth rate is that great.

That’s interesting, it’s growing at that rate, and yet there are problems?

South Korea has a lot of economic and other kinds of problems that have been unsolved, like many countries. It’s doing fine if you look at it from afar. I don’t want to exaggerate. There isn’t a tremendous lack of satisfaction at home, but people feel like it could be doing better.

And President Roh, whose party lost this election, campaigned on a kind of anti-Washington platform back in 2002, and a lot of anti-Americanism was then seen in the electorate. Has that changed? Is America still unpopular?

America was never unpopular; some American policies were. If you look at South Korea, the United States has played a crucial role in its development and in its survival. Lee Myung-bak is a fairly independent-minded person. I expect that he will be comfortable with his relationship with the United States. Of course, it won’t be too long before there will be a change of leadership within the United States, so we’ll have two new leaders to deal with each other. He comes from business, and the good part is that to be in business as long as he was, you have to be pretty realistic.

Explain this scandal that’s been in the press.

It’s a company that got into a lot of trouble, and he was the originator of this company, in a sense, so he was tagged in this scandal. But it doesn’t seem to have fazed the electorate—you know he won by a huge majority.

This landslide will give him a boost, at least in the initial months. It will do a lot if he is seen as a big winner in politics.

How will North Korea regard his election?

North Korea is not too happy about having conservatives elected, but on the other hand, there is no indication that he wants to make a major or radical shift in policies towards North Korea. It has not been an issue in the campaign, and there is no indication that he wants to depart from the general rapprochement policies of his predecessors.

What do you think he wants to do with North Korea?

In my conversation, he clearly accepted the main line of rapprochement with North Korea that was blazed by President Kim Dae-jung [1998-2003]. Kim always seemed a bit eager for rapprochement with North Korea, and after all that was his main goal ever since he got into politics. It caused him a lot of trouble. But he saw it as his historical opportunity to finish or eliminate this distrust between North and South Korea. His big moment, of course, was the 2000 summit meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il.

Lee Myung-bak doesn’t have that sense of determination, and I don’t think he sees himself principally as somebody who is going to make some change in the relationship with North Korea. That’s already done, in a sense. He does want to create a greater sense of trust between North and South Korea, which he says is lacking, and it certainly is. He wants things to be improved, but I don’t think he sees this as his big mission. He does see himself as a person who can move the economy and do domestic things in South Korea. And of course most politicians want to do those kinds of things, but he may be able to do more than some of his predecessors.

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