South Korea turns right

This week South Korea elected a new president, former Hyundia executive Lee Myung-bak. He replaces Roh Moo-hyun, who tended to take an accomodationist line with North Korea, called the “sunshine” policy. It usually amounted to the South just giving whatever the North wanted, while criticizing the US and Japan for taking a more stern line. Lee looks like he’ll take a very different approach from his predecessor.

To the dismay of human rights groups and governments in the US and Europe, Seoul last month abstained from a United Nations vote condemning human rights violations, including torture and public executions, in North Korea.

Mr Lee on Thursday said he would not shy away from such issues.

“During the 1960s when South Korea’s per capita income was about $100, advanced countries around the world pointed out South Korea’s human rights violations. Of course the then-military government may not have agreed with this criticism but nevertheless I believe that such criticism helped South Korea improve its human rights situation,” Mr Lee said in his first press conference.

“Therefore I think that unconditionally avoiding criticism of North Korea would not be appropriate. If we try to point out North Korea’s shortcomings with affection, then I think that will go along way towards improving North Korea society,” he said.

While trying to smoothly resolve the North Korean nuclear problem and continuing to provide humanitarian assistance, South Korea would also make “necessary criticism”, including of North Korea’s human rights situation, Mr Lee said.

South Korea’s relations with the US are expected to improve as the administrations in both countries adopt more balanced approaches to North Korea. Mr Lee said he would also seek to encourage better relations between Washington and Pyongyang.