Talking-points for speech to The Sejong Society.

Peter Beck



“Seven Challenges for Korea’s New President”

Notes for Sejong Society and East-West Center Presentations

20 and 21 February 2008


  • Introduce work for ICG/HRNK
  • Lee has gotten off to a bumpy start;  still trying to crawl out from under the scandal cloud and he had difficulty announcing his new cabinet
  • “SKY Team”: (Somang Church, Korea University and Yongnam).  However, I think the church and school ties (only five from Ko-dae) are overstated, but Kyeongsang is not- 10 out of top 25
  • Some things don’t change:  Seoul-dae still dominates with 11 out of top 25 posts, ave. age 58.5.
  • Foreign policy team:  All good friends--Foreign Minister Yu (skiing); BK Kim, Kim TH
  • Not challenges:  747 campaign pledge is bogus and waterway is white elephant


The Challenges

1.)) Rebuilding Sungryemun and place better security system in place.


2.)) Building a cohesive, centrist political party:  The GNP has just turned 10 years old, which is almost a record for a Korean political party, but it is suffering from deep splits that will not be resolved even when the party kicks the United Democratic Party in the April NA elections.  Ruling party often called the “two country party” or even “two person party.”  Personalities are far more important than policies in Korean politics.


3.)) Changing the Constitution to create concurrent election for the presidency and the National Assembly.  Switching to a four-year, one possible re-election system like the US would reduce the lame duck status that soon hits one-term presidents and would be much more streamlined.  Current system is inefficient (holiday for each level) and insures lower turnout. 

Reduce chances of divided government:  This would lower the chances of “yeosoyadae

Rare Opportunity: The gap between terms is at its lowest in the past 20 or for the next 20 years because of the 4-year and 5-year terms.


4.)) Striking a balance between economic justice and growth:

Dealing with Junior:  (start with Lee Kun-hee story: received power from his father, is trying to pass it on to his son but the genetic material does not seem to improve with each generation and the legitimacy of passing on power is being called into question; he’s reclusive, there are rumors about his health, but he is untouchable.  

--One of the great disappointments with Roh was that despite quest for equality, corporate titans have never received more than a slap on the wrist.  Still looks like “yujeon mujwae


·        Jeonkyeongyuchak/Crony capitalism and family-run chaebols remain an obstacle to higher economic growth.  The “Korean Disease” is still thriving.  As a former Hyundai man, is he prepared to do something about this?

·        FDI declined for the third straight year to less than half of what it was 7 years ago.  But Lee has criticized Lone Stare debacle and will not be resolved soon.



5.)) Striking the right balance with North Korea will not be easy.

  • While there is a broad consensus on the need for a more balanced policy toward the North instead of the unconditional engagement of the past decade, striking the right balance between carrots and sticks will not be easy.


  • However, Pyongyang has become so economically dependent on Seoul that it will have to learn to live with a more assertive partner.  It is high time Seoul rediscovered its voice when it comes to requiring better monitoring of humanitarian aid, raising human rights concerns, and insisting on better behavior for receiving economic assistance. 


  • President Lee’s campaign rhetoric often left American observers with the impression that he would be much tougher on North Korea, but based on my last conversation with him when he was mayor, Washington may be getting its hopes too high.  It will certainly be easier to coordinate policies toward North Korea, but not necessarily easy.


  • When it comes to humanitarian assistance, channel more through the World Food Program and insist on better monitoring.


  • Tie expansion of Kaeseong to the workers being paid directly (currently more than 20,000 workers and rising fast).


  • Tie expansion of tourism projects to Pyongyang providing a better accounting for the roughly 500 South Koreans and 20 Japanese and other foreigners abducted by the North since the Korean War.


6.)) Relations with the United States

  • Relations with the United States and can only improve after hitting rock-bottom under President Roh.  All of the Korea watchers who appeared on two post-election panels held in Washington, believe Lee will mend frayed relations with the United States.  In many ways, Presidents Roh and Bush provided the ultimate test for the glue that holds bilateral ties together.  President-elect Lee will be a vast improvement simply by choosing his words more carefully.


  • U.S.-Korea relations began deteriorating from the moment President Kim Dae-jung made his hasty trip to Washington in early 2001 when W took office.  Relations headed further south under President Roh Moo-hyun.  Having hit rock bottom about the time Roh suddenly demanded operational control of Korean forces during wartime, the only real direction the relationship can go is up. 


  • Nevertheless, there are several steps Korea’s new president can take to place Washington-Seoul relations on a firmer footing.  The first is to establish a personal relationship with President Bush as soon as possible.  Even though President-elect Lee spent several months at George Washington University before becoming mayor of Seoul, which is when I got to know him, he is still relatively unknown to the Bush Administration and Washington policy circles more broadly. 


  • For President Bush, personal ties are paramount.  Having lost his best buddy counterparts in Japan, the U.K. and Australia, he is forging a new group of close friends for his last year in office.  Lee should try to be one of them.  However, he should avoid DJ’s mistake of trying to impose his views on Bush.  Bush has finally come around on the necessity of engaging North Korea, but clearly bristled last summer at the APEC meeting in Sydney when Roh pushed too hard for a peace treaty during their photo-op.


  • At the same time, President-elect Lee should also look for opportunities to reaffirm the alliance.  More important than setting up a committee of elder statesmen (there are already several of these) is taking concrete steps to stop the bleeding in the alliance by reversing bad decisions and reaffirming the good ones.   It may be too late to delay the timetable for the transfer of operational control, but the consolidation of American bases in Korea and the location of a new U.S. embassy are far from settled. 


  • Similarly, announcing his commitment to send troops back to Afghanistan and maintain current (token) force levels in Iraq would also send a positive signal to Washington, as would trying to help push the Korea-U.S. FTA through the National Assembly.  The list of possibilities for reinvigorating the alliance is embarrassingly long.


7.)) Crafting a strategic vision for Korea and Korea’s place in Asia and the world.  

  • Balancer concept was bogus
  • Will China be a friend or foe?  History dispute was a wake-up call
  • Lee should quietly raise the issue of North Koreans in China during first meeting with Chinese leaders.  Forced repatriations must stop.  At the very least, NK women married to Chinese citizens should be allowed to remain in China.
  • Ask Lee to adopt a more proactive stance toward North Korean refugees in China and beyond.  After all, constitutionally, North Koreans are ROK citizens.  Korean embassies and consulates should be much more helpful to asylum-seekers. 
  • Managing relations with Japan will not be easy--most leaders suffer from profound historical amnesia and see no contradiction in being obsessed with 16-7 abductees and comfort women (Mike Honda and Nori Onishi are public enemies 1 and 2!).




  • President-elect Lee only has a few more weeks to craft a clear, strategic vision for Korea, something that was sorely missing from his presidential campaign platform.  The average Korean may have few concerns when it comes to North Korea or the United States, but becoming a revered statesman will mean more than just waving a magic wand trying in vain to raise economic growth. A newly unemployed prime minister in Australia can attest to that.

"Happy New Year-Jan. 2007 Article
"Meet an American Imperialist", April 28, 2007
"Expanding Korea's Soft-Power", May 26, 2007
"Leaving Seoul", July 11,2007
"Leaps of Faith", Sept. 2,2007
"A Brewing Revolution-Oct. 2007

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