A Change in South Korea

Friday, December 21, 2007

SOUTH KOREA'S president-elect, Lee Myung-bak, said at a valedictory news conference yesterday that increased economic cooperation between South and North Korea would depend on whether the North fulfilled its promises to dismantle its nuclear weapons. He also said, "I think unconditionally avoiding criticism of North Korea would not be appropriate. If we try to point out North Korea's shortcomings with affection, I think that would go a long way toward improving North Korean society."

Those may sound like mild and even milquetoasty sentiments about a regime that continues to starve and brutalize 23 million Koreans while hoarding perhaps a dozen nuclear warheads. But in South Korea, the new president's position is a refreshing change from that of the left-of-center leaders who have held the office for the past decade. Outgoing president Roh Moo-hyun pursued a carrots-only policy, showering North Korea with aid that had no strings attached. Mr. Roh not only refrained from mentioning the human rights abuses of a country where tens of thousands of political prisoners languish in labor camps, but he even stopped using terms such as "reform" and "openness" about the North when dictator Kim Jong Il objected to them.

Mr. Lee won the biggest victory in the 20-year history of South Korean democracy on an economic platform: He's promising to raise South Korea from 13th to seventh in the list of the world's biggest economies. No one expects him to return to the hard-line hostility toward North Korea that his party maintained the last time it occupied Seoul's Blue House. But Mr. Lee will probably work to improve strained relations with the United States and Japan and be more supportive of the U.S. objective of ending the nuclear threat from Pyongyang.

The shift comes at a crucial moment. Under a deal struck by the State Department in early October, North Korea pledged to completely "disable" its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and declare all of its nuclear programs and materials by Dec. 31. Last week, State Department officials let it be known that Pyongyang will probably miss the deadline; more seriously, they suggested that the North's much-anticipated disclosure could be far from complete. While pocketing supplies of fuel oil being delivered by the United States and South Korea under the deal -- and gloating over a respectful letter he received from President Bush -- Mr. Kim is trying to evade the requirement that he spell out what became of the reprocessed plutonium and imported centrifuges his regime is known to possess. He also owes an explanation for the nuclear complex in Syria that North Korea was reportedly helping to construct before the Syrian facility was bombed by Israel in September.

Mr. Roh recently promised Mr. Kim that South Korea would spend billions more to build roads, rail lines and ports for North Korea. Those investments may make sense as the South contemplates a future reunification. But Mr. Lee's stated intention not to turn on the tap until the North meets its nuclear commitments could force Mr. Kim to make a choice about his weapons -- something he has not yet done.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company