As expected, former Seoul mayor and Hyundai executive Lee Myung-bak seems handily to have won yesterday’s South Korean presidential election. Exit polls have him at between 40 and 50 percent of the three-man race. This is good news for South Korea, Asia, and the United States. Lee is not only an experienced businessman and politician, he is likely to bring a more realistic approach to Korean affairs, warm up relations with the U.S., and perhaps even take South Korea onto new paths of international involvement. For now, Lee has promised a “747” strategy: achieve 7 percent annual growth, increase South Korea’s per capita income to US$40,000, and put the country in the top 7 nations worldwide in terms of GDP.
Especially audacious is Lee’s income doubling plan (currently South Korea’s per capita income is around US$20,000), and it harks to former Japanese Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato’s income doubling policy of the 1960’s, which put Japan on the road to economic superpower status. With a growing asset bubble around Seoul, corruption in the state and among private enterprises, and rising income inequality, Lee has his work cut out for him. But in bringing clarity to his political platform, he has given South Koreans a road map for moving forward.
Equally importantly, this is the moment for the U.S. to take advantage of having an ally in Seoul. The past decade of rule by presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun has seen a near-collapse in U.S.-South Korean political relations. Both Kim and Roh pursued active engagement with Pyongyang, and most South Koreans saw nothing emerge from the policy except a nuclear North Korea. Lee has indicated that any further engagement with Kim Jong-Il depends on the North’s living up to the promises it has already made. This should give Washington an excuse to re-evaluate its policy of bending every deadline in the Six Party Talks in Pyongyang’s favor. Washington also has a unique chance to rethink the military reform projects put in place over the past several years, and to consider delaying the dissolution of the highly successful Combined Forces Command, a reform opposed by an overwhelming majority of South Korean uniformed officers.
Now is also the time to encourage South Korea to think about a larger role in East Asia, starting with improving relations with Japan, perhaps within a new trilateral arrangement spearheaded by the United States. The Japanese more forthrightly will have to address lingering historical issues to Seoul’s satisfaction, but the two should be natural partners in promoting democracy, free markets, and human rights in Asia. This should become a priority of the Bush administration in its remaining months. Yesterday’s election is a rare piece of good news in a region that needs it desperately.