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Seoul's Conservative Swing

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
Updated: April 11, 2008

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South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s conservative party won a parliamentary majority (NYT) in April 9 elections, overturning nearly a decade of rule by the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP). South Korea’s Yonhap news service reports that the vote will help Lee, who won the presidency in December 2007, promising to take a tough line with Pyongyang, economic reforms, and better ties with the United States.

Lee’s first months in office have not gone smoothly. Among the problems: infighting in his party, greater cross-border tensions with the North, allegations of corruption against his cabinet appointees, and stiff opposition to many of his policy proposals. The Economist notes that this has made for a poor start to his five-year term. The former mayor of Seoul and Hyundai’s top executive, Lee won the elections despite allegations of involvement in a corruption scandal. Last month, three of his cabinet appointees were forced to resign (NYT) amid suspicions that they received bribes from Samsung. One of Lee’s major plans, a nationwide canal project linking rivers in the North and South, has run into opposition from environmentalists.

Lee’s loudest criticism has come from Pyongyang. North Korean state-run media lashed out at him at the end of March, threatening to reduce South Korea to a “sea of ashes” (VOA). Earlier this month, the North Korean regime threatened to cut off all dialogue (BBC) with the South, expelled South Korean officials from a joint industrial complex, test-fired missiles, and claimed that Seoul was breaching the disputed sea border. Experts say this is no surprise given Lee’s hard-line policy on linking economic aid to Pyongyang’s progress in denuclearization efforts.

For the last decade, the North has enjoyed the benefits of a “sunshine policy” wherein the liberal UDP administrations of presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun offered economic and humanitarian aid to North Korea in an effort to warm inter-Korean relations. (As this Crisis Guide explains, since the end of the Korean War, the peninsula has been divided between the communist North and capitalist South). Now, with a conservative president at the helm, relations seem to have chilled again. In keeping with its tough line on the regime in the North, Lee’s administration decided to vote (UPI) for a UN resolution critical of North Korea’s human rights record last month. But a briefing from the Economist Intelligence Unit argues “the latest tensions are a normal part of the cut and thrust of inter-Korean relations.”

Meanwhile, a deadlock in the Six-Party Talks, an international effort to denuclearize North Korea, is worrying the Bush administration. Pyongyang missed an end-of-2007 deadline to make a full disclosure of its nuclear activities. Speaking in Jakarta ahead of another round of negotiations with his North Korean counterpart, U.S. Envoy Christopher R. Hill said the deadlock must end soon: “This has held us up now for over three months. We don’t have three months to spare anymore so we’ve really got to see if we can make some progress on this.” Scott Snyder, senior associate at the Asia Foundation, writes that the North Korean regime may be using the delay as a tactic to test the extent to which President Lee is able to uphold his tough stance on Pyongyang.

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