South Korea poised to choose conservative leader

A more businesslike approach to North Korea is expected, but drastic policy changes are not.

Associated Press
Published December 16, 2007

SEOUL, South Korea - One of North Korea's worst fears is about to come true: The liberal South Korean government that has pampered Pyongyang with aid while shying from criticism of its rights abuses is about to be swept from office.

Conservative candidate Lee Myung Bak, a former Hyundai executive, is widely expected to win Wednesday's presidential election in South Korea. He will bring a businessman's eye to dealings with the North, pledging in his campaign to take a more critical view of Seoul's aid and demand more in return.

The shift to the right in South Korea's presidential Blue House will also foster improved ties with Washington. Outgoing President Roh Moo Hyun and President Bush have had a rocky relationship marked by awkward moments.

Still, analysts predict the liberals' departure will not lead to an about-face in Seoul's "sunshine" policy of engagement with North Korea. South Korean assistance will still flow as long as Pyongyang continues to scale back its nuclear weapons program.

"We are living in the so-called post-Cold War era," said Paik Hak Soon, director of North Korean studies at the Sejong Institute, a private security think tank near Seoul. "The competition between South Korea and North Korea is practically over."

Lee, who was mayor of Seoul until 2006, has said he will re-evaluate promises Roh made to the North.

At a summit meeting in October, Roh and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il agreed to a long list of projects in the North, including new joint economic zones, a shipbuilding factory, tourism ventures, and road and rail improvements.

Roh has followed the policy of his predecessor Kim Dae Jung, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for engaging the North after holding the first summit between the Koreas.