SEOUL — President Roh Moo-hyun is searching for positions on a nuclear North Korea, the tense relationship with the United States, a struggling economy and dealing with corruption among several of his supporters.
Mr. Roh called last month for a national vote of confidence that would give him a needed fresh mandate. But resistance from several opposition parties raised doubts whether the vote would be held at all, or whether it was constitutional.
Mr. Roh said at a news conference yesterday that he will go ahead with such a vote, which was announced after reports that a close presidential aide had taken $934,000 from a scandal-tainted company before the presidential elections last year.
“Yes, it still holds good,” Mr. Roh said of the proposal yesterday, though he acknowledged he was not certain that it could be held before the end of this year, as originally proposed. Others say, however, that National Assembly elections next April 15 may serve as the first test of public confidence in his leadership.
Inaugurated little more than eight months ago, Mr. Roh saw his approval ratings dip to as low as 24.3 percent during the summer, according to the Korea Times, and some analysts say the president, a lawyer before he became president, must stop trying to be all things to all sectors of society.
“There is a collision between national sentiment and national interest,” says Lee Chung-min, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University. “So the president has to make a decision. He can no longer govern without a clear decision.”
South Koreans are split on a number of crucial issues — how to reunify North and South Korea after 50 years of estrangement, the nature of Seoul’s relationship with the United States and how to revive the economy.
Radical groups say South Korea should no longer “kowtow to Washington” and want the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed here to leave. They are furious that Mr. Roh answered President Bush’s call for South Korean forces to help rebuild Iraq. A book by gadfly American activist Michael Moore, mocking U.S. policy in Iraq — “Dude, Where’s My Country?” — has hit the South Korean best-seller list.
In return, the U.S. military here is frustrated by what it says is lack of appreciation from South Korea as American troops put their lives on the line along the demilitarized zone and at bases around the country.
“We’re not needed here,” says one soldier from Maryland, typical of some GIs, as he eats lunch in a mess hall just minutes away from the tense 2.5-mile-wide corridor that divides the bustling, democratic South from the drab, impoverished, communist North.
Some South Koreans are calling for a reconsideration of South Korea-U.S. relations, particularly in relation to North Korea. They say engagement and cooperation with Pyongyang is the correct path and reject what they perceive as a hard-line stance by Mr. Bush.
“I don’t think that pushing them harder will make [North Korean leader Kim Jong-il] concede [his nuclear weaponry],” says Park Gee-young, a 27-year old student in Hungkok University’s graduate school of international area studies.
That view is encapsulated in the short film projected onto a wraparound screen in a theater near Panmunjom on the DMZ, just a few yards from the tracks leading to a network of tunnels the North Koreans built into the granite to penetrate the South. Busloads of tourists watch black-and-white film clips of sobbing relatives meeting each other after decades of separation, interspersed with beautiful color shots of butterflies and baby birds, as a tender voice states, “Already the birds and flowers are living in peace and harmony in the DMZ.”
Just up the road, American and South Korean troops — who train relentlessly to protect the border from invasion — stand unflinchingly at attention just a concrete block away from equally determined North Korean soldiers.
The desire for a more-equal relationship with the United States does not mean everyone wants the Americans to leave. Many believe the U.S. presence in South Korea is crucial to maintaining regional stability and attracting steady flows of foreign investment.
“We need a continued military presence for the time being and even after unification,” says Park Jin, spokesman for the conservative Grand National Party, which controls 149 seats in the 273-member National Assembly.
“U.S. forces are not just a deterrent to the North; they are a stabilizer in Northeast Asia.”
With his political mandate in question and National Assembly elections on the horizon, Mr. Roh is going to have to make some clear policy decisions soon.
“We are at a tipping point, politically and historically,” says Mr. Lee of Yonsei University. “In my lifetime, we have come from virtually nothing to something. The problem is, where do we go from here? What is our role model now?”
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