South Korea Takes A Political Turn To The Left

When the current president of South Korea Lee Myung-bak took office four years ago, he turned a cold shoulder to engagement with North Korea. The conservative wing in South Korea opposed improving relations with Pyongyang. But that has proven to be an unpopular policy, and now Lee finds himself in the difficult position of appealing for closer ties in this unpredictable transition period in North Korea. Lee goes to Beijing Monday to seek Chinese backing for this policy shift.

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The president of South Korea is in Beijing for talks with Chinese leaders. At the top of their agenda is the political transition in North Korea. Ever since Kim Jong-il died in December, both China and South Korea have advocated open dialogue with the North.

But as NPR's Mike Shuster reports from Seoul, that's a reversal for the South Korean president and it could have an impact on the country's elections later this year.

MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: On the surface, it may all sound predictable. The conservative president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak, urging dialogue with North Korea, known formally as the DPRK, in a speech last week.

PRESIDENT LEE MYUNG-BAK: (Through Translator) If the DPRK comes to the table with sincerity, we can together open up a new era on the Korean Peninsula. We have to solve mutual trust issues through dialogue and take the road of mutual benefits and common prosperity.

SHUSTER: But buried in these quite ordinary-sounding words is a sharp shift in South Korean policy. When Lee Myung-bak became president four years ago, he turned away from engagement with North Korea, which had been Seoul's goal for nearly a decade, says Paik Nak-chung, professor emeritus at Seoul National University.

PROFESSOR PAIK NAK-CHUNG: He discontinued practically all the North-South exchanges. That amounts to a radical reversal of the previous policy. That process had started already with his inauguration in 2008.

SHUSTER: Behind President Lee's cold shoulder to Pyongyang was the belief that, without South Korean support, especially without South Korean aid and investment, the North Korean regime would collapse. The conservatives in South Korea were convinced of that, says Park In-kyu, editor of the liberal website, PRESSian.

PARK IN-KYU: They hate North Korean regime and they hope - they want collapse of North Korean regime.

SHUSTER: But the North Korean regime did not collapse, despite constant food shortages and isolation from most of the world. At the same time, the conservative approach never became popular in South Korea and, says Professor Paik, it has put the conservatives at a disadvantage going into an election year.

NAK-CHUNG: I think it has been definitely counterproductive. These days, I think, President Lee and his advisors are showing some signs of catching on.

SHUSTER: It's not as if North Korea is especially popular in South Korea. It's not. The frost turned to ice in 2010 when North Korea sunk a South Korean warship in March of that year, killing more than 40. Then, in November, unleashed an artillery barrage on an isolated island, leaving several more dead.

President Lee demanded an apology from North Korea and cut off nearly all of South Korea's remaining financial interactions with the North. The apology never came, but says Daniel Pinkston, the chief analyst in Seoul with the International Crisis Group, many in South Korea blame the tension on President Lee's aversion to engagement with North Korea.

DANIEL PINKSTON: South Korean society is very divided and some people blame the provocations of the past and the tension in inter-Korean relations on the conservative hawkish policies of the Myung-bak government. Now, whether you think that's true or not does not matter, but if the electorate feels that way, then it might shift how they vote.

SHUSTER: That's precisely what opinion polls are showing in South Korea, a move toward the left as elections for South Korea's legislative assembly in April approach. Couple that with widespread dissatisfaction with the lead government's record on the economy and there's a real chance, Professor Paik says, for the left to return to power.

NAK-CHUNG: The liberals have a very good chance of taking control of the National Assembly. If they win the Assembly elections, their chances of winning in the presidential election will improve.

SHUSTER: President Lee cannot run for reelection. The South Korean constitution limits presidents to a single five-year term, but because conservative prospects don't look good, it seems obvious why, in the aftermath of Kim Jong-Il's death, Lee is suddenly talking about dialog and urging the Chinese leaders to protect the status quo in North Korea.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Seoul.

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