February 25, 2008

HARRISONBURG— Today, in a special “Inside Track” feature for National Interest online, the web edition of the foreign policy journal The National Interest, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, discusses the implications of the inauguration of Lee Myung-bak as the tenth president of the Republic of Korea.

Noting how Lee’s predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun, “frustrated—if not alienated outright—many of Seoul’s traditional allies by his constant failed efforts to cast himself as a mediator between them and the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-Il,” the article observes that “President Lee’s advisors have sent reassuring signals that they realize that the type of security that America has provided—at no little cost to itself—cannot be taken for granted” and that the new administration will likely also repair relations with Japan. However, it also points out:

South Korea’s oddly staggered system of five-year presidential and four-year legislative terms presents President Lee with the challenge of facing a parliamentary election barely six weeks after his inauguration. With that poll currently scheduled for April 9, the new chief executive has a very short honeymoon before facing a vote which may well determine whether or not he will have much of a chance to carry out the needed repairs to South Korea’s foreign relations. And here, his would-be partners abroad, especially those in Washington, have an opportunity to help, if they’re willing.

Dr. Pham reports that “exit polls taken during the presidential election indicate that the biggest issue influencing voters was the state of the South Korean economy” and notes:

To achieve anything close to economic results sought by Lee and his compatriots, however, requires that the Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), signed last year, be expeditiously ratified by the U.S. Congress. Whether that legislative feat can be accomplished in the middle of the U.S. election cycle is another story, notwithstanding the fact that South Korea is America’s seventh largest export market and its sixth largest purchaser of agricultural products. Of the presidential candidates, only Senator John McCain favors passage of KORUS FTA, writing in Foreign Affairs that the accord is about the bilateral strategic partnership and not just economics and pledging that his administration would realize “the full potential of our new trade agreement with South Korea” in order to “ rebuild our frayed partnership with South Korea.” Both Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Barack Obama are on the record opposing the trade pact.

The piece concludes:

It would be rather ironic that if, after a decade of repeated frustrations with South Korea’s solipsistic “sunshine policy,” the United States, caught up in its own domestic politics, now fails to take advantage of a significant strategic opportunity presented by the dawning of a new day in Seoul.


The full text of Dr. Pham’s feature, “A New Dawn in South Korea,” can be accessed by clicking here.