A liberal human rights lawyer was elected president of South Korea yesterday, potentially complicating US efforts to force North Korea to stop trying to build weapons of mass destruction.
With all but 5 per cent of the vote counted, it was clear Roh Moo-hyun had narrowly won an election that was all about how to manage the heavily armed, bankrupt and troublesome Stalinist state to the north. The election of Mr Roh, 56, who favours continuing the outgoing President Kim Dae Jung's "Sunshine policy" of engagement, will be met with furrowed brows in Washington. America favours a diplomatic solution but is determined to play hardball with North Korea.
The White House moved quickly to gloss over the result, showing no sign of concern that Mr Roh has in the past accused South Korean leaders of "grovelling" before American presidents. He recently declared an unwillingness to "kowtow" to Washington.
The White House said it looked forward to a continuing good relationship with South Korea, one of its closest allies, where 37,000 US troops are based. "The United States enjoys a very strong relationship with the government and the people of South Korea. It's an important relationship and a relationship we look forward to continuing very productively," Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman said.
The outcome is of intense importance to Washington, which is grappling over what to do about North Korea, particularly after its admission that it has a hitherto secret programme for enriching uranium. The Americans are determined not to make concessions to North Korea unless Pyongyang first freezes its nuclear programme.
Relations worsened last week when North Korea declared it would start up an atomic reactor thought capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. But Washington is pursuing a diplomatic solution, despite allegations of double-standards in its dealings with North Korea – which has at least one nuclear weapon – and Iraq, which the US believes is conspiring to make one.
Mr Roh, from the ruling Millennium Democratic Party, beat the conservative, pro-American retired Supreme Court judge Lee Hoi Chang, 67, who favours a hard line with Pyongyang. With about 99 per cent of the votes counted, Mr Roh had 48.9 per cent – a result seen by analysts as a victory for the younger generation. Mr Lee, who conceded defeat in the early hours, had an estimated 46.6 per cent. The turn-out was just over 70 per cent, unusually low for South Korea.
The vote took place in an anti-American atmosphere, fuelled by the acquittal by a US military panel of two soldiers involved in a car accident that killed two schoolgirls. Tens of thousands protesters took part in rallies calling for such cases to be placed under South Korean jurisdiction.
Mr Roh won despite the last-minute withdrawal of support from Chung Mong Joon, a former presidential candidate and one of the organisers of South Korea's successful co-hosting of the World Cup.Mr Chung said he was upset by Mr Roh's remark that South Korea should dissuade the US and North Korea if they "start a fight".