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Korea Welcomes Obama as New Partner in Old Alliance

New America Media, News Analysis, Peter Schurmann and Aruna Lee Posted: Nov 06, 2008

Editor's Note: Koreans in Korea say they are envious that America embraced diversity and elected Sen. Barack Obama as president, even as President Lee Myung-bak is eager to reach out to him. An alliance with Washington is a cornerstone of Lee's foreign and domestic policy. NAM contributors Peter Schurmann and Aruna Lee currently live in Seoul.

SEOUL -- I got an e-mail today from a colleague, a reporter here in Korea, who was curious to know my reaction to Barack Obama's victory in Tuesday's elections. I told her that for the first time in years I felt hopeful about politics, to which she replied, "Yesterday, I envied Americans."

Koreans across the political spectrum are welcoming the news of Obama's victory. His name is being spoken on streetcars and in cafes across the city. His image is splashed across newspapers. The JoongAng Daily dedicated four pages of coverage to the elections, with headlines hailing Obama's "breaking of the race barrier" and his "revolution."

A blogger on a popular Internet site congratulated America on "beginning to rewrite its history," a nod to the significance of America's first African American president and a sigh of relief that many here are breathing after eight years of unilateral decision-making by Washington.

An article in the JoongAng notes that Obama studied Korea's traditional martial art, Taekwondo, for four years, that he enjoys eating Korean food and that he greets Koreans in Korean, something he learned during his years in Hawaii, where there is a sizable Korean community.

Former President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae-jung said Obama's win "gives new hope to people who had given up on America."

My colleague, Kim Young-gyo, is a young mother of two whose politics have been leaning conservative of late. She said the election showed "just how dynamic America is," and sounded almost wistful about the "diversity" that Obama's win represented.

While both candidates subdued the race issue during the campaign, Koreans here have been asking what role it played in voters' decision making. "Would Obama have won were he not half white?" read one online comment. Another asked whether Obama was "a black president, or an American one."

I asked Kim whether she could imagine such a candidate in Korea. "I've been wondering that too," she replied. "The previous president, Roh Moo-hyun, was a high school graduate without political backing. Young people especially were excited" about his campaign.

Like Obama, Roh strongly favored diplomacy with North Korea, a stance that brought him into disfavor with the Bush administration. His tenure was also marred by a series of political miscalculations and vicious media coverage, leading to the election of the conservative Lee Myung-bak in February, who is now scrambling to reach out to the new president-elect.

Lee and members of his Grand National Party (GNP), traditionally tied to the Republican Party of the U.S., are desperate to build bridges with the incoming administration, as the alliance with Washington is a cornerstone of Lee's foreign and domestic policy.

In April, Lee signed a controversial agreement with Washington resuming imports of U.S. beef, a widely unpopular decision among Koreans, yet one Lee felt would help ensure passage of a free trade pact signed in 2007 and currently awaiting ratification by the respective legislatures.

Obama has consistently voiced his opposition to the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), citing an imbalance in auto-trade that strongly favors Korea, and has called for a redrafting of the agreement. For its part, Seoul remains hopeful and insists there will be no renegotiating of the deal.

"Korea has been an ally of the U.S. for 50 years, and Korea ranks as the world's 13th largest economy," Ok Im-chung, a member of South Korea's National Assembly, told reporters. "We will not bend on certain negotiations regarding the FTA."

Korea's economy is heavily dependent upon exports, which make up almost 70 percent of the nation's annual revenue.

Obama has not stated whether he will attend the upcoming G20 summit meeting in Washington in his capacity as president-elect, though Lee aides have made no secret of their hope for a one-on-one meeting with Obama. High on the agenda of the summit will be the current financial crisis that has rocked the global economy and has left Korea's financial markets in turmoil.

Also on the table is the ongoing six-party denuclearization process involving the two Koreas, as well as the U.S., China, Japan and Russia. While Lee has maintained a hardline stance towards the communist North, Obama has stated his willingness to engage in dialogue, something that could potentially lead to Seoul's isolation from the entire process.

Hyesung Kim, 31, is a reporter with Korea's Yonhap News Agency in Seoul. Having lived in the United States for a number of years, he says of Obama's win: "An African American president. Who would have thought!"

An avowed liberal, Kim says North Korea has "always been ready to talk to Washington exclusively if the South doesn't listen.

It's happened before," he adds, "during the Clinton years, and it can happen again." As for Lee, Kim says he'll likely "be left out."

Still, Kim says he's hopeful that Obama will help turn the global tide away from the conservative shift that began with Bush's election in 2000, something he says may have helped contribute to Lee's own election.

What seems clear is that while Koreans are joining in the celebrations of this historic moment, there is also uncertainty as the country seeks to reaffirm a decades old alliance with a radically new and as yet unfamiliar partner.

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