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South Koreans Set to Elect New President

South Koreans will go to the polls Wednesday to elect a new president, but for the first time in two decades, North Korea and its nuclear weapons will not be the major issue of concern.

Years of engagement with North Korea, known in the South as the Sunshine Policy, have left most voters unconcerned about the possible threat from their neighbor.

At the same time the effort to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons has made progress, a result of more face-to-face diplomacy between North Korea and the United States.

The Sunshine Policy has not fundamentally changed North Korea, but it has changed South Korea.

"Not many Korean people believe that North Korea is a threat anymore," said Gi-wook Shin, director of the Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University.

The man most likely to be elected on Wednesday is Lee Myung-bak. In the past, conservatives such as Lee would have opposed engagement with North Korea — especially so in Lee's case because his chief liberal opponent, Chung Dong-young, is identified with the Sunshine policy.

"Both of them are pretty much saying the same thing about the continuity of a policy of engagement and cooperation," said Evans Revere, president of the New York-based Korea Society. "Perhaps the conservative candidate's approach might be a little bit harder-edged than Chung Dong-young's might be if he were elected. But you don't see any massive gaps between the two, quite frankly."

That change coincides with a shift inside the Bush administration. For much of the past year, Washington has engaged in one-on-one talks with North Korea, a sharp turnaround from the previous five years.

As a result, there has been progress in the effort to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Earlier this month, the chief U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, visited North Korea's nuclear complex at Yongbyon and reported that concrete steps were being taken to disable the key nuclear installations there, actions that insure the nuclear program could not be restarted without a lengthy and cumbersome effort.

"They've done a lot of work in preparation of discharging the fuel in the reactor which will, I think, have a big effect," Revere said. "That will mean they can't easily put it back. So that will enable the disabling to be of real value so that we have over a year worth of disabling."

The American willingness to deal directly with North Korea has led to a greater appreciation for the US in South Korea, said Sung Deuk Hahm, professor of political economy at Korea University.

"Through the ten years' experience with the Sunshine Policy, now the majority of Koreans realize our limited autonomy toward North Korean policy," Sung said. "The majority of Koreans now felt that we need (the) United States cooperation to make better relations with North Korea."

Under the terms of the agreement with North Korea, Pyongyang must also fully account for all aspects of its nuclear program, including its plutonium stockpile, and especially activities involving uranium enrichment.

That inventory was supposed to be delivered by December 31, but the deadline is likely to slip.

That is a sensitive point in the process of ridding North Korea of its nuclear weapons. There are still hard-liners in the Bush administration - Vice President Dick Cheney chief among them - who are deeply suspicious of North Korea and who are not committed to Hill's diplomatic efforts.

They are ready to pounce on any false steps Pyongyang might make, a point that Hill acknowledged after his recent trip to North Korea.

The details do not seem to be of much concern right now in South Korea, where far more voters are preoccupied with the economy.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.