- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2003

SEOUL South Korean President-elect Roh Moo-hyun took the oath of office this morning, pledging to resolve the nuclear standoff with North Korea "peacefully through dialogue" only hours after Pyongyang fired a missile into the sea between the peninsula and Japan.

In a speech setting forth an ambitious agenda for his five-year term, Mr. Roh, whose anti-American campaign rhetoric was a winner among the country's predominantly young population, also promised to foster and develop Seoul's "cherished alliance" with the United States, but he said it has to mature to a "more equal relationship."

The new president, however, chose not to urge direct U.S.-North Korean talks the main point of friction between Washington and virtually all regional powers. In fact, in a remark that sounded similar to the Bush administration's recent attempts to engage the entire region, he called for mutual efforts by several nations.

"North Korea's nuclear development can never be condoned," Mr. Roh said. "We will strengthen coordination with the United States and Japan to help resolve the issue through dialogue, and we will also maintain close cooperation with China and Russia."

Building on his predecessor Kim Dae-jung's open-door "sunshine policy" toward the North, Mr. Roh said he would enhance transparency, extend citizens' participation and seek bipartisan support. He was alluding to a scandal involving a large amount of money reportedly funneled to Pyongyang by Mr. Kim's administration compensating North Korean leader Kim Jong-il for his June 2000 meeting with the South Korean president.

The land-to-ship missile North Korea fired yesterday sparked jitters in regional financial markets already hurt by the nuclear standoff and policy differences between Washington and Seoul on how to address the threat from the North.

"We believe that this was a launch of a shorter-range tactical missile into the ocean," said a senior U.S. official traveling with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who attended today's swearing-in ceremony.

Last week, a North Korean MiG-19 fighter plane intruded into South Korean airspace and the North's military threatened to walk away from the truce that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.

Mr. Roh said it was unfortunate that the Korean Peninsula remained the last bastion of the Cold War and added that it should be "reborn as East Asia's gateway to peace."

If the North denounces its nuclear program, "the international community will offer many things it wants," he said.

"This is the time to make a determined effort to safeguard peace and have it firmly rooted on the peninsula," he said.

He spoke of the 21st century as "the age of northeast Asia," touting a pivotal role for South Korea in its future. He noted that the combined population of his country, Japan and China is four times larger than that of the European Union.

Mr. Roh, 56, who was born in a poor southern village near the port of Pusan, has compiled a resume as a social and political activist that led to the politics of social protest and strong support for civilian over military rule.

After a period of military service ending in 1971, he studied law near his hometown, passed the bar exam in 1977 and turned to representing student protesters and later striking workers, who resented the longtime official brake on wages that helped fuel South Korea's industrial growth.

Later today, Mr. Roh is scheduled to hold talks with Mr. Powell, who is touring East Asia to seek support for a multinational effort to persuade the North to drop its nuclear ambitions.

Japan offered qualified support for the idea over the weekend, but China said yesterday the dispute should be settled in talks between Washington and Pyongyang a position that Washington rejects. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer also said that, "whether one likes it or not … this will have to be resolved bilaterally."

On his last full day in office yesterday, Mr. Kim said direct dialogue between the United States and North Korea would be "key" to ending the nuclear dispute.

In addition to his talks with Mr. Powell, Mr. Roh will also meet with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Qian Qichen and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov. They all attended his inauguration.

While Mr. Roh contends some of his criticisms of the United States have been misunderstood, his blunt public remarks left many of his countrymen uneasy. Political opponents, who control the one-house National Assembly, accuse Mr. Roh of damaging U.S. relations.

Mr. Roh has said he cherishes the military alliance with Washington and doesn't want to see the force of 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea reduced. He also fully supports a U.S. military role on the Korean Peninsula, even if the North and South unify, an aide said over the weekend.

Gus Constantine contributed to this report from Washington.


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