The man favored to succeed South Korean President Kim Dae-jung pledged yesterday to continue the policy of engagement with the North, but he vowed to adopt a much tougher line in demanding reciprocity from Pyongyang.
Lee Hoi-chang, president of the opposition Grand National Party (GNP), said in an address here that Mr. Kim’s “Sunshine Policy” had gotten too far ahead of public opinion in seeking to improve ties with Pyongyang without insisting on concrete concessions in return.
“Our policy toward North Korea cannot be based on handouts or olive branches alone,” said Mr. Lee, who will meet with Bush administration officials and congressional leaders during his visit this week.
“There is an overwhelming national support for improving relations with North Korea,” Mr. Lee said. “However, the Sunshine Policy has widely come to be viewed as overreaching, over-generous and oblivious to the anxiety and insecurity felt by many people in the South.”
Mr. Lee, 66, narrowly lost to Mr. Kim in the 1997 presidential election, but his party scored major gains in the National Assembly in 2000. By law, Mr. Kim cannot run again, and his ruling Millennium Democratic Party has been struggling to overcome the stalled reunification program, a stagnant economy and a series of scandals at home.
The conservative GNP has opened up a clear lead in the polls in advance of the Dec. 18 election.
Just yesterday, Mr. Kim’s spokesman was forced to deny the president had any links to a burgeoning scandal involving ties between his wife’s nephew and a corporate financier facing charges of stock manipulation and bribery.
Mr. Lee said his party “did not seek the collapse of North Korea,” but he has argued that further aid and investment to the battered North Korean economy should be met by a clear reduction in Pyongyang’s military threat to Seoul.
His tougher line sparked an angry attack on Monday from Pyongyang, which accused the opposition leader of being “an anti-reunification element” who as president could cause “tensions in the Korean peninsula [to] be aggravated to bring about war.”
The North-South rapprochement has slowed even more since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Seoul strengthened its border controls after the strikes, and talks between the two governments have been on hold since November.
Mr. Lee said he did not have a catchy name for his policy toward the North, describing it as “strategic engagement.” He said it would be based on the principles of stability on the Korean peninsula: reciprocity, political support at home, human rights and democratic values, and a strong national defense.
“The fact is that, despite its brave talk, North Korea badly needs outside help in food, energy and other commodities,” Mr. Lee argued.
He added: “But we should use our resources wisely, and in a deliberate fashion. We should not be carried away with political rhetoric, nor indulge in vain expectations.”
Despite its harsh rhetoric, the communist North signaled yesterday it was ready to consider the resumption of talks, and said it would pursue negotiations no matter who won the December election.
“Whoever takes power in South Korea, the North-South joint declaration must be implemented faithfully and thoroughly,” North Korean Communist Party senior leader Yang Hyong-sop said in a speech heavily covered by the official press.
Mr. Lee said the Kim government’s record on corruption had been “mixed,” adding that he would push for greater transparency and market discipline in reforming the Korean economy.