The victory of liberal candidate Roh Moo Hyun in South Korea's presidential election offers as much opportunity as challenge to the Bush administration's Korea policy. Though the tenor of the campaign may have led some to see the election outcome as a victory for anti-Americanism and unconditional engagement with North Korea -- both policies inimical to the alliance at present -- there are good reasons for believing the two allies can find common ground.
The presidential debates and commentary in South Korea painted Roh as a left-leaning political dissident and former labor-activist lawyer who protested against past pro-American governments in Seoul and, indeed, supported the removal of U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula during the Cold War. In contrast to his pro-American, more conservative challenger, Roh was seen as willing to criticize American heavy-handedness in the case of two Korean schoolgirls killed by a U.S. Army vehicle on military maneuvers -- a stand that had strong appeal to an angry electorate.
There are, however, solid reasons for not interpreting this as a victory for anti-Americanism. Roh's statements alluding to the "change of heart" he has had on U.S. ties since his activist days are not nearly as important in this regard as the fact that in a vibrant democracy, this new South Korean leader must now represent an entire country rather than a constituency. Moderation of his views on the United States in this sense is inevitable.
Concerns were also raised about Kim Dae Jung when he took office five years ago, and yet he ended his presidency as perhaps the most pro-American president in Korean political history. Admittedly, Kim's protege will have to undergo a deeper transformation, but the situation in the East Asian region, in which Korea sits as a relatively small country among not-so-friendly giants, gives a powerful, time-tested and almost indisputable logic to the alliance with the United States.
On policy toward North Korea, there is no denying that the gaps with the United States appear to be wide. In contrast to the conservative candidate, Roh declared during his campaign that he would continue the sunshine policy of engagement with Pyongyang. This view stood in apparent defiance of the Bush administration's highly conditional view of engagement and a harder-line posture of non-dialogue and diplomatic pressure in the aftermath of revelations in October of North Korea's secret nuclear weapons program.
Yet, again, the difference is manageable. As the United States contemplates a war in Iraq, it has an overwhelming interest in a peaceful resolution to the U.S.-North Korean standoff. Promoting inter-Korean economic engagement could provide an incentive for Pyongyang's compliance on U.S. nonproliferation objectives. Contrary to popular perception, Roh's campaign rhetoric has not boxed him in: Exit polls in South Korea show that policy toward North Korea stood a distant fourth in issues that affected individual votes.
This argument for common ground in the alliance does not mean the Bush administration can be complacent. Widespread anti-American demonstrations last week in Korea -- at a time when the North Korean threat appears to be growing -- were a wake-up call to an administration distracted by Iraq.
The Bush administration should view the election of a new South Korean president as a chance to make a fresh start. Among other tasks, this means inviting Roh to Washington to begin repairing relations. Bush should also consider appointing a high-level policy coordinator who can focus on Korea even as events in the Middle East progress. This coordinator would not only map out a strategy with Roh on dealing with North Korea, but also undertake a fundamental review of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. This is the advisable way to turn the challenges of a new South Korean administration into opportunity, and to avoid a crisis on the peninsula.
The writer is a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.