- The Washington Times - Friday, December 20, 2002

SEOUL Ruling-party candidate Roh Moo-hyun, who pledged to continue engagement with North Korea and criticized Washington's tough line against the communist state, yesterday won a five-year term as president of South Korea.
Mr. Roh's conciliatory stance toward North Korea and his open questioning of South Korea's ties with Washington struck a chord, particularly with the country's younger voters.
In the wake of the vote, the Bush administration was reassessing its policies toward South Korea one of the closest U.S. allies in Asia.
The United States yesterday acknowledged that South Korea was undergoing "an important generational change" and that Washington would have to find ways to deal with it.
"We are very enthusiastic, because it's time to start building our relationship on some of the new elements, and this administration is very ready to engage very directly with these people and get moving on the kind of relationship that we need to have between South Korea and the United States," a senior official said.
The official also said the Bush administration did not intend to discourage Seoul from pursuing its exchanges with Pyongyang.
Mr. Roh, of the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), edged conservative opposition leader Lee Hoi-chang, who took a hard line against North Korea by threatening to end the so-called "sunshine policy" of rapprochement with Pyongyang.
In contrast, Mr. Roh vowed to continue and expand the economic and humanitarian contacts, begun under outgoing President Kim Dae-jung, at a time when the Bush administration has been prodding South Korea, Japan and other nations in the region to isolate the North.
Today, Mr. Lee, a two-time loser in his quest for the presidency, announced his official departure from politics.
"Now, I am going out of politics," Mr. Lee, 67, said in a tearful farewell speech.
A teary-eyed Mr. Roh told cheering supporters as his victory was confirmed last night:
"I will open an era of new politics with cooperation and dialogue. When I run into trouble, I will open my heart and ask for help, even from opponents, through dialogue."
With 99 percent of the votes counted, Mr. Roh had garnered 48.9 percent of the vote to 46.6 percent for Mr. Lee.
Labor union leader Kwon Young-ghil, a socialist who many thought might be a spoiler in the race for Mr. Roh, finished third in the six-candidate field with just over 4 percent.
In a raucous street rally in downtown Seoul that lasted into the early morning, hundreds of South Korean youths clad in Mr. Roh's signature yellow and draped in South Korean flags waved balloons and sang campaign songs as their candidate's lead held steady on a giant digital screen across the broad avenue.
"This is for peace," said Kim Byung-dong, a member of the Internet-based youth activist group Nosamo, which campaigned aggressively for Mr. Roh. "Bush must understand what's happening here."
Anti-American sentiment increased dramatically in the months leading to the vote, fueled by widespread disagreement with Bush administration policies and the acquittal by a U.S. military court of two American servicemen who ran over two local girls in June and killed them.
Many of those who took to Seoul's streets last night carried lighted white candles housed in a paper cup the symbol of the recent protests against the acquittals.
Mr. Roh, 56, a lawyer and human rights activist in the struggle to end South Korea's military dictatorship in the 1980s, is a foreign-policy novice who has never visited the United States.
In the campaign, he broke a long-standing taboo by questioning the military alliance with the United States.
"In no circumstances will we cut our dialogue with the North," he told voters on the eve of the election. "We should proudly say we will not side with either North Korea or the United States."
Mr. Lee had counted on traditional conservative voters to boost his bid, particularly in light of North Korea's recent admission that it was restarting its nuclear-weapons program.
But as the vote tallies came in, Mr. Lee's early lead evaporated and he conceded the race four hours after the polls closed.
Exit polls showed that, along with traditional regional cleavages, there were sharp generational divisions in the vote.
Conservative, largely pro-U.S. voters over 50 went for Mr. Lee by a 60-40 margin. But voters 30 and younger preferred Mr. Roh by 58.8 percent.
Mr. Roh, who once called for the total removal of U.S. troops, came under pressure yesterday to modify his foreign-policy stands and repair the relationship with Washington.
He also must deal with a National Assembly dominated by Mr. Lee's opposition Grand National Party, which has frustrated much of Mr. Kim's domestic agenda.
The White House said yesterday that President Bush "warmly congratulates" Mr. Roh and looks forward to working closely with him.
Ari Fleischer, Mr. Bush's spokesman, noted that "the people of South Korea have once again demonstrated the enduring vitality and dynamism of democracy in their country."
James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said it would take the administration some time to see whether Mr. Roh's statements made "in the heat of the campaign" would pan out.
"We are going to have to wait until he's inaugurated and until he names his team and sit down and look at them face to face and find out what it is that we agree on and what it is that we disagree with," said Mr. Kelly.
But he added that Mr. Roh's election is an opportunity to "modernize and improve" the 50-year-old alliance.
The election marked a watershed for South Korea. For the first time since South Korea became a democracy in the late 1980s, support for U.S. military troops based here became a political liability instead of an asset.
In South Korea, the U.S. military had imposed a weeklong nighttime curfew on the 37,000 American troops here, saying it did not want to inflame tensions during the campaign.
Mr. Roh also promised to bring major domestic changes to this fast-growing country, including more regulation of the giant "chaebol" conglomerates that have long dominated the economy.
In addition, he proposes moving much of the government's administration out of the sprawling capital of Seoul in an effort to decentralize power.
The president-elect, who takes office in February, overcame a remarkable number of hurdles in winning yesterday's vote.
Mr. Kim, rocked by corruption scandals among top aides and his family, and serving out his term as a lame duck, has been nearly invisible in the campaign.
Mr. Roh emerged as a dark-horse winner of the open MDP primary to succeed him and trailed Mr. Lee for much of the year in opinion polls.
Mr. Roh also had to overcome the eleventh-hour collapse of his electoral alliance with popular soccer executive Chung Mong-joon, who withdrew his support on the eve of the election.
The MDP won despite a record-low turnout of about 70 percent. Virtually all the pundits had said a low turnout would favor Mr. Lee, whose older supporters were considered more likely to vote.
The result was a second straight disappointment for the 67-year-old Mr. Lee, a former prime minister and Supreme Court justice who narrowly lost to Mr. Kim five years ago.
"To those who supported me, I am truly sorry," Mr. Lee told a phalanx of glum campaign aides at his party headquarters late last night. "I take the election outcome as the choice of the nation."
Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report from Washington.

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