Seoul Searching

Poor Roh Moo-Hyun. The South Korean president’s popularity rating has dipped as low as 10% recently. His backers on the left have savaged him for pushing a free-trade agreement with the United States. With only a few months remaining in his term and the presidential elections coming up in December, he faces a likely victory by the conservatives.

And now he finds himself caught between Kim Jong Il and the Taliban.


The news that Roh will go north to Pyongyang for a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at the end of this month has generated faint praise. At home, the South Korean media has chided the president for trying to boost his party’s chances in the December elections. “Summit of folly,” the centrist newspaper Joongang Ilbo has declared. A columnist in the more conservative Chosun Ilbo has called the upcoming meeting a “political deception.”


In the United States, news of the summit failed to make the headlines. The Bush administration has quietly voiced its concerns that Roh will give away the shop to the North Koreans. The multi-party talks to resolve the ongoing nuclear standoff are proceeding step by step. North Korea shut down its nuclear reactor in July and has received some heavy fuel oil in return. But Pyongyang has yet to give a full inventory of its nuclear program as the next step toward complete nuclear disarmament and Washington doesn’t want anything to preempt this process.


Roh promises to press Kim Jong Il on the nuclear issue. There may also be a compromise on the long-disputed maritime boundary. But most likely the focus will be on the economy. North Korea has a big wish list, and Roh Moo Hyun, as Santa Claus of the South, has a big bag of potential goodies: 2 million kilowatts of electricity, the renovation of a key highway going from the DMZ to Pyongyang, the construction of a 330,000-ton fertilizer plant, expansion of the Kaesong industrial zone, and so on. Some analysts in South Korea have put the value of this bag of goodies at $9 billion.


Leading up to the summit, North and South Korea have already been strengthening economic ties. South Korea has pledged to improve the North’s mining operations and light industry. In June, the first high-voltage power line began to connect the two halves of the Korean peninsula. In May, two trains made a test run across the reconnected train line between North and South.


But any major expansion of economic cooperation will require the support of Roh’s successor. Contrary to some U.S. analysis, the conservative party in South Korea has largely backed the same approach to North Korea as Roh’s party, so this might not be as difficult as it sounds. More challenging perhaps will be getting U.S. support for the international loans that any mini-Marshall Plan for North Korea will require.


Ordinarily, the upcoming summit would be the singular focus of the Korean government and the Korean media. But that distinction belongs to the hostage situation in Afghanistan. Last month, the Taliban kidnapped 23 South Korean church workers on a misguided mission to the country. The militants have demanded the release of their own prisoners. The Afghan government, with strong U.S. support, has refused to deal. So far the Taliban has killed two of the hostages. This Monday, as a good-will gesture, the Taliban released two. But 19 South Koreans remain in limbo.


For refusing to barter with terrorists, the United States has come under a lot of fire in South Korea. “Totally ignoring the Taliban will not help settle the matter,” editorialized the Korea Times. “The U.S. tacitly approved the swapping of an Italian female journalist for five Iraqi prisoners. The U.S. started the war in Afghanistan and induced South Korea to join it. So it needs to feel a strong sense of responsibility for this recent case. Saving innocent people is more important than ideologies or principles regarding war.”


If Roh can pull off a successful summit with North Korea and extricate the remaining hostages from Afghanistan, he will rescue his presidency. Ultimately, though, he remains dependent on Washington — to support any economic deal with the North and to show some flexibility toward the Taliban. After several years of demonizing Kim Jong Il, the Bush administration reversed its policy and has begun to negotiate in earnest.


The question is, after several years of strained relations between Seoul and Washington, will the Bush administration do a similar about-face and throw a lifeline to Roh Moo-Hyun? 


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