- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2008

SEOUL — Lee Myung-bak, who takes office as South Korea’s 17th president tomorrow, told North Korea on the eve of his inauguration not to be “nervous” about his tougher policy approach to the communist state, pledging that reconciliation remains his goal.

The pro-American Mr. Lee, who will be the first conservative to lead South Korea in a decade, has promised to improve relations with Washington. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Seoul today, and Mr. Lee is expected to visit President Bush at the White House in April.

Among the various policy plans announced by Mr. Lee since his December election victory, the one that has most resonated internationally is his stance on North Korea. He has said that his predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun, was too lenient toward the North and failed to hold it accountable for its actions.

Mr. Lee said he would link Seoul’s aid to Pyongyang to its progress on denuclearization, which has stalled because of the North’s failure to provide a promised declaration of its nuclear programs before a Dec. 31 deadline.

North Korea has not commented on Mr. Lee’s election, but official media have made it clear that his public message has been received in Pyongyang. Today, he sought to calm the North.

“There is no reason for North Korea to be nervous about the launch of the new government,” Mr. Lee said after a meeting in Seoul with Singapore’s former prime minister, Goh Chok Tong.

“The basic thought of the new government remains unchanged that South and North Korea should reconcile and maintain peace.”

Another proposal that has sparked an intense debate would fold the Unification Ministry into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Mr. Lee argues that North Korea policy should be part of foreign policy, but his liberal opponents disagree.

“Lee emphasizes strong relations with the U.S. and Japan to solve the nuclear crisis, but the bottom line is, all his polices start when it abolishes nuke weapons,” said Sung Deuk-hahm, a professor in politics at Mr. Lee’ s alma mater, Korea University.

“What will he do in the meantime? I don’t see specific programs or proposals,” Mr. Sung said.

Domestically, Mr. Lee, 66, has vowed to accelerate growth in Asian’s third-largest economy, ease regulation and taxation on business and attract more foreign investment.

Rising from poverty to head Hyundai Engineering and Construction, Mr. Lee gained a reputation as a “bulldozer” who rammed through projects against opposition. As mayor of Seoul from 2002 to 2006, he won popularity with a massive urban rejuvenation project, uncovering a stream that flowed through downtown.

His flagship presidential plan is the digging of a grand canal the length of the mountainous nation.

The country, suffering from sagging competitiveness and falling foreign investment, is eagerly anticipating economic improvements, but given Mr. Lee’s background at Hyundai and in a market dominated by giant conglomerates, questions have arisen over whether he will be pro-free market or a pro-big business interventionist.

“I think he has much broader interests than a typical conglomerate executive,” said Tom Coyner, author of the book “Mastering Business in Korea.”

“If he mimics old-fashioned policies, he will not go down in history as the visionary which I think he believes himself to be.”

In addition to Miss Rice, other foreign officials expected to attend tomorrow’s ceremony are Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, Russian Premier Victor Zubkov and Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan.


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