A day before Thursday's presidential election, candidate Roh Moo Hyun stood before reporters and said, "I am the only person who can resolve the nuclear issue through dialogue. The survival of 70 million Korean people is at stake."
It was a bold statement, mostly written off as campaign hyperbole. But Roh appears to believe he will be the key to solving the confrontation between the United States and North Korea over Kim Jong Il's pursuit of nuclear weaponry.
Even in his cautious statements after his victory , Roh asserted today that he had to "resolve the North Korea nuclear issue," and said it was on his "to-do list."
That fits with his view -- and the main platform in his grass-roots campaign -- that South Korea should play a much more important role in the U.S.- North Korea dealings.
But the other players in the equation have never accepted that view. North Korea always has curtly dismissed attempts by the government in Seoul to negotiate major military-strategic matters, insisting -- to South Korea's festering resentment -- that those issues were to be discussed only with Washington.
The U.S. government also has brushed South Korea aside whenever it felt it must address North Korea on matters of American self-interest. Indeed, part of Roh's popularity grew from South Korean anger that President Bush crushed the national euphoria here over progress with North Korea by proclaiming that it was part of an "axis of evil" and saying he did not trust Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader.
Roh thumped in his campaign speeches on the ignominy of President Clinton having drawn up plans to bomb North Korea's nuclear reactors in 1993 with little consideration of South Korea. That crisis was resolved by an agreement the next year between the governments in Washington and Pyongyang -- again, with little input from South Korea.
The slight involves more than national pride. Seoul, home to more than half the South Korean population, is within easy artillery range of North Korea, which is 35 miles away. If warfare erupted, Seoul could be devastated in minutes, with huge casualties. The outgoing South Korean president, Kim Dae Jung, apparently felt he had to describe that danger in detail to Bush at a meeting this year.
The scenario reportedly sobered the American president. But neither the United States nor North Korea has shown any public willingness to change their views of South Korea's role in the impasse over North Korea's latest effort to enrich uranium that could be used to make nuclear bombs.
But some argue that the situation has changed in ways that could put Roh in a much more pivotal position.
For one thing, he may be the only nexus of communication. The Bush administration has said it will not negotiate with North Korea until it dismantles its nuclear program. North Korea said it will not do that until the United States renews talks and pledges not to attack.
Japan has recently shifted to a harder line toward North Korea and its own talks with that government are on indefinite hold. Among parties with a direct interest, that leaves the government in Seoul.
"The South's continuous benign engagement with the North under the Roh administration may well foreclose the military option for the United States and leave Washington no choice but to go back to the negotiation table," according to Alexander Mansourov, a North Korea expert who teaches at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.
Roh's leverage may also increase as South Korea becomes one of the few remaining sources of aid to North Korea.
As the United States steps up pressure for the diplomatic isolation of the Pyongyang government, the assistance and foreign currency North Korea had expected from other countries is drying up. South Korea, however, still has some trade with the North, still has plans for development of industrial parks there, and still pays for the right to take South Korean tourists to the sacred Mount Kumgang along North Korea's eastern coast.
Roh's election opponent, Lee Hoi Chang, had vowed to cut those economic lifelines. Roh's willingness to continue them may increase his bargaining power with the impoverished North.
"Kim Jong Il wants to keep his people loyal to him, and to do that, he needs as much hard currency as he can get," Hyung Kook Kim, director of American University's Center for Asian Studies, said in an interview here.
Kim Jong Il could secure that assistance and have the perfect venue for negotiating through Roh if the North Korean leader makes good on his long-neglected pledge to visit South Korea in return for the June 2000 trip by Kim Dae Jung, whose term ends in February.
Finally, according to some observers here, the deal to resolve the crisis is fairly obvious . Roh could be the one to seize the initiative and shepherd it through. The United States wants North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program with verifiable inspections before resuming any ties. North Korea wants improved relations with the United States and access to continued aid. The hang-ups are in the details and who moves first.
"Both sides want a package deal," said Hyung . "But they are different packages. The U.S. goal is regional stability and peace. North Korea's goal is regime survival and foreign currency." But both goals could be satisfied in a shrewd deal, he said.
That assessment is shared by Roh.
"It is possible to have North Korea give up its weapons of mass destruction," Roh said in a meeting with reporters Dec. 4. "They have decided to take the route of openness, and they desperately need outside assistance."
"North Korea should not scare the United States," Roh added at a campaign stop this week. "If I become president, I will meet both President Bush and Kim Jong Il and persuade them."
Special correspondent Joohee Cho contributed to this report.