S. Korean president faces conflicting pressures as he toughens N. Korea response

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 28, 2010; 11:29 AM

SEOUL - The latest provocations from North Korea and the resulting rightward swing in South Korean public opinion have transformed South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's strategy for dealing with the peninsula's troublemaker. The old method: Act with caution. The new method: Get tough.

Lee's shift in thinking has prompted modest but growing concern in the Obama administration, where officials worry that an overly aggressive South Korea could become a liability in its own right.

Political analysts in Seoul and Washington predict that Lee will soon face pressure from the United States to reengage diplomatically with the North. But Lee has turned increasingly hawkish in recent weeks after taking criticism for Seoul's weak initial counterattack to Pyongyang's Nov. 23 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

"Fear of war is never helpful in preventing war," Lee said Monday in a radio address. "If we are firmly determined to brave any risks, we can fend off any emerging threats."

In Seoul, policymakers have long debated the best North Korea policy, finding downsides to every solution. Lee now faces domestic pressure to remain firm and international pressure to reduce tension on the peninsula. Of late Lee has given priority to the first of those demands. But with two years left in his term, how he meets what one Western diplomat called the legacy-defining challenge of "putting North Korea back into the box" will shape security in South Korea, where the U.S. stations 28,500 troops.

Lee recently overhauled the rules of engagement, making it easier to respond with greater force against the North. He also installed a new defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, who called for additional airstrikes if the North attacks again. Lee last week visited South Korean troops, telling them that future aggressions from Pyongyang would require a "powerful counterattack." Lee also said his old beliefs were mistaken: "We thought we could keep this land peaceful with tolerance," Lee said, "but it was not true."

A history of tepid responses

Another move by the North is precisely what some analysts expect.

"It makes no sense to think we've seen the last of North Korea's provocations," said Bruce Klingner, a former North Korea CIA analyst and current researcher at the Heritage Foundation. "So now you have North Korea driven to additional provocations and Lee Myung-bak driven to respond more forcefully - even if it leads to conflict. When you have that situation, you're much more likely to have a miscalculation."

For years, South Korea had responded to North Korea's occasional belligerence by backing down, a means to preserve the many things it could lose in a war: its capital city, its thriving economy; its infrastructure. Even after North Korea torpedoed a South Korean warship in March, killing 46, Lee's most noteworthy proposal - blasting propaganda messages at the border - was dropped when Pyongyang threatened to shoot the loudspeakers.

But then came the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, where four South Koreans died and 18 were injured. The attack exposed an underbelly in Seoul's readiness, and when the South Korean military counterattacked, it did so with a pinch, not a punch. Lee had to apologize for the feeble showing. One poll a short time later suggested that 65 percent of South Koreans wanted a tougher policy against the North, and Lee, according to political analysts, has been trying to belatedly meet that demand.

Switching gears

On Dec. 16, South Korea announced it would hold an artillery drill on Yeonpyeong - a regular practice, yes, but a symbolic show of force on demolished, disputed territory. The next day, Pyongyang promised a catastrophic retaliation.

Though several U.S. officials defended Seoul's plans, Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman James Cartwright worried that the artillery drills could set off a "chain reaction," in which U.S. and South Korean forces "lose control of the escalation."

And one day before the exercises, a pair of top U.S. officials in Seoul - Ambassador Kathleen Stephens and Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of U.S. forces in Korea - showed up at Lee's presidential palace to meet with a Blue House adviser, seeking reassurance that the drill was necessary, according to a U.S. official familiar with the meeting who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks.

"Lee Myung-bak realized late in the game that he had to respond," said Patrick Cronin at the Center for a New American Security. "And then the fear was that he might over-respond. ... That drill seemed excessively risky to some officials in the U.S."

During Lee's 2007 presidential campaign, only 3 percent of South Korean voters viewed the North as a primary concern. Most were worried about the economy, and Lee, a former Seoul mayor and Hyundai Construction chief executive, styled himself as a CEO-type leader - a pragmatist with a conservative business sense.

Government officials in Seoul, though, now suggest that Lee's tenure will be remembered most as a period of increased North Korean bellicosity. "South Koreans don't feel safe anymore," said Chung Dong-young, South Korea's former unification minister and a current opposition party assembly member.

Pressure to negotiate

Kim Jong Il's Pyongyang government disliked Lee almost from the start. Lee suspended free shipments of food and fertilizer, as well as joint economic projects undertaken with the North during the "Sunshine Policy" years, saying that cooperation would return once North Korea denuclearized.

North Korea called Lee a "pro-U.S. stooge." It test-fired missiles and nuclear devices. It torpedoed the Cheonan warship. It provoked so frequently, Lee's top advisers believed that Pyongyang wanted to turn South Koreans against their president, in hopes of prompting him to resume the free shipments.

"But after the Yeonpyeong incident, the balance of power has been shifted - rapidly - toward the right side," becoming more hawkish, one key South Korean government official said. "So this is a huge damage toward North Korea's [strategy]. So I think Yeonpyeong was a military and policy mistake by Pyongyang."

Lee has in the meantime tightened his alliance with the United States. By November 2009, Lee and President Obama had already held three summit meetings. The countries coordinated on new military plans and reached a tentative free trade agreement deal. Within hours of the Yeonpyeong attack, Obama called Lee, pledging that the countries would again stand shoulder to shoulder.

But in the next months, the Western diplomat said, U.S. officials will pressure Seoul to reopen dialogue with Kim Jong Il's government. Political experts note that such an option could appear contradictory, and make Lee look erratic and indecisive, given Seoul's current tough rhetoric.

"However," said Wi Sung-lac, South Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, "[Lee] has never ruled out the possibility of dialogue. He's always left that open."

"Lee's biggest pressure right now is satisfying his constituency now that the public has become more conservative," said Hahm Sung-deuk, a presidential expert at Korea University. "Efforts to engage with the North might seem like betraying the public. We need some cool-down time in order to engage with the North again."

Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

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