“South Korean voters yesterday chose conciliation over confrontation,” declared Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, referring to Roh Moo-hyun’s narrow victory over Lee Hoi-chang in Thursday’s presidential election. Roh, a 56-year-old former human-rights lawyer who supports a continuation of the “sunshine policy” of reconciliation with North Korea, enjoyed a 2.3 percent victory margin over the 67-year-old Lee, who favored the United States’ tough attitude to the Pyongyang regime.
Several commentators noted that Roh benefited from a wave of anti-Americanism, especially after a recent incident in which U.S. soldiers who killed two Korean girls with an armored vehicle were acquitted in a U.S. military trial. The court’s decision drew tens of thousands of protesters to the streets demanding more South Korean jurisdiction over the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country. He was also on the right side of the generation gap. Britain’s Guardian reported that younger Koreans “more willing to take chances to escape from the shadow of the cold war” were heavily behind him, a significant factor in an electorate where seven out of 10 voters are aged between 20 and 40. The Daily Telegraph summarized the younger generation’s attitude to the North:
Seoul is fully aware of northern hostility but is terrified, first, of provoking a war in which the capital would be particularly vulnerable, and, second, of sudden implosion north of the 38th parallel that would land the South with an economic burden dwarfing that faced by West Germany in 1990. Running beneath these considerations is a strong current of nationalism that sees the northerners as benighted fellow Koreans rather than members of an axis of evil.
Korean papers took pride in the meritocratic rise of Roh, a Catholic from a poor farming family too poor to send him to university. (He later studied alone to pass the bar exam.) The Korea Herald said, “His rise to the helm of national leadership represents an impressive saga of Korean society in its evolution from an agrarian basket case just freed from a harsh colonial rule to an industrialized democracy at the threshold to an advanced democracy.”
Roh’s five-year term, which begins next Feb. 25, will be challenging, because like his predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, his Millennium Democratic Party controls only 102 seats in the 272-member national assembly, where Lee’s Grand National Party has a majority with 150 seats. This made Lee’s loss all the more frustrating. As the Korea Herald observed: “It is a pity that opposition candidate Lee failed to persuade the voters about the necessity for a power change in spite of the incumbent government’s various policy failures and corruption scandals. … What [the GNP] lacked was vision and viable alternative policies to guide the nation in the 21st century.”
The Korea Times encouraged Roh to “make every effort possible to heal the wounds caused by chronic regional antagonism, ideological conflicts, discord between the classes and dissenting opinions between the old and the young, regardless of who supported him.” The editorial concluded, “[H]e must mobilize every means available to effectively fight the deep-rooted corruption prevailing in every nook and cranny of our society, and this is one of his top tasks as the head of state. We have already witnessed the sad reality of the two sons of President Kim being arrested for corruption, not to mention other corruption scandals involving influential politicians and government officials.”