Lee Myung-bak: the Reagan of Seoul

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In May, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said his nation would no longer tolerate North Korean “brutality.” Lee Jae-Won / AP-pool

Don’t be fooled by the recent signs of a thaw between the Koreas. Pyongyang and Seoul have discussed more family reunions on the divided peninsula, and $8.5 million in aid from the South to help the North cope with devastating floods. But the underlying trend suggests a fundamental shift toward confrontation, as South Korean President Lee Myung-bak sounds more and more like Ronald Reagan and his attack on the “evil empire” of communism.

Since taking office in 2008, Lee has largely reversed the course of his predecessors, who pursued a “sunshine” policy of warming relations with the North. Lee criticized his predecessors for lavishing money on Kim Jong-il’s dictatorial regime and getting only belligerence in return. North Korea continued to push its nuclear program, missile tests, and other provocative behavior. After a South Korean warship was torpedoed in March, killing 46 sailors, Lee’s government threw off the gloves. It blamed the attack on the North, and called Pyongyang its “principal enemy,” an epithet Seoul had not used in six years. It also vowed to cut off aid until Pyongyang apologizes, which of course it refuses to do.

The modest new aid offer doesn’t resolve the standoff. In fact, Lee raised the stakes last month, issuing what sounded like an outright challenge to the legitimacy of the Pyongyang regime just as it was preparing a ruling-party conclave, at which Kim was expected to begin passing power to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. Lee appeared to envision the end of the Kim family reign when he proclaimed that “the time has come” for the South “to start discussing realistic policies to prepare for” reunification, including a “reunification tax” that would help the South absorb the North. On a visit to Moscow last week, he claimed that he was only envisaging a gradual process of peaceful unification, not the collapse of North Korea. But his backpedaling seemed to confirm that he had indeed been thinking about the end of the Kim regime.

The call for a reunification tax is a wonky way of echoing Reagan’s call to the Soviets to “tear down” the Berlin Wall. The message: you are presiding over a doomed political system, and we are preparing to absorb you. Last week, the Federation of Korean Industries put the likely cost of reunifying the two Koreas at roughly $3 trillion, or $1 trillion more than West Germany spent on reuniting with East Germany. Why the difference? East Germany had a reputation as the most isolated and repressive of the Soviet satellites, but North Korea is even more isolated, and in even sharper economic decline. One third of North Korean children under the age of 5 are malnourished, and mortality rates for both infants and adults rose about 30 percent between 1993 and 2008. A currency devaluation in November 2009 and the replacement of the old won with a new won effectively robbed people of their meager private savings. There are reports of growing popular resentment and black-market dealings, but no real sign of resistance to the iron control of the Kims.

One lesson from Eastern Europe is that the more repressive the regime, the harder it falls. The closest analogy to North Korea was Romania, where Nicolae Ceausescu the (“Genius of the Carpathians”) built a cult of personality almost as ludicrous as Kim’s, and worked with his wife to set up their son Nicu as the heir apparent. Instead they were both executed in the only violent revolution of 1989, and Nicu was dispatched to prison.

South Korea now has two options. It can help North Korea stay afloat, since a rapid collapse could unleash chaos, and hope that the Kim regime will slowly fade away. Fearing a flood of refugees, China is committed to that route. Or, like Reagan when he dealt with the Soviet Union, it can continue to negotiate, making agreements that help both sides whenever possible, but demanding real accountability and not hesitating to challenge the legitimacy of a political system that is brutal and dangerous.

Lee isn’t as openly confrontational as Reagan, but his instincts are pulling him toward a more subtle Reaganism. It’s a rational calculation, because another unpredictable Kim regime is in no nation’s best interests.

Nagorski is vice president and director of public policy at the EastWest Institute.

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