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Majority of public back Korea `balancer` role

Seven out of 10 Koreans support President Roh Moo-hyun`s aggrandized foreign strategy for the nation to become the "balancer" of Northeast Asia, a survey showed yesterday.
A majority also felt the government must take stronger action against Japan`s claims to the Dokdo islands and controversial history textbooks which Korea and other Asian countries criticize for history "distortions."
The findings were in a survey of 1,000 people over 20 years old by Cheong Wa Dae`s public survey office last week. The survey focused on questions about Roh`s "balancer" policy, in which he contended Korea must seek to become the power balancer in Northeast Asia, a role that could possibly realign Korea`s alliance with the United States in face of China`s rapidly growing international status.
Nearly 15 percent of the respondents described Roh`s policy as "very appropriate," while 60 percent called it "appropriate overall."
However, a majority took a skeptical view, with 68 percent saying Korea as a Northeast Asia balancer had limitations but could be possible. More than 20 percent said it was virtually impossible, while 11 percent said it was viable.
Roh first publicly mentioned the balancer objective in a congratulatory speech to the Air Force Academy and the Korea Military Academy last month.
"Korea will serve as a balancer for the peace and prosperity of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, and the power of the region will change according what choice we make," Roh said. Similar messages were repeated, for example in a March 23 letter from Roh to the public and the National Security Council doctrine on foreign policy in the same month.
Some of the public, currently on an emotional rollercoaster because of Japan`s claims to Korean-controlled Dokdo and the new textbooks, welcomed the hard-hitting foreign policy.
But others, especially conservatives, voiced concern that Korea may not yet be ready to risk its strong alliance with the United States at a time when the Northeast Asian scene is changing with the fast rise of China and the strengthening alliance between Washington and Tokyo.
Despite the contrasting responses, the survey showed a majority of the respondents, 72 percent, felt the recent guidelines differed little from the government`s mainstream foreign policy.
Nearly 68 percent, mostly respondents in their 20s and 30s, said Korea`s move to become the balancer derives from changes within neighboring countries looking toward "supremacy."
Some 35 percent said the reason behind the balancer role declaration was "to express an independent voice and to act on it," while 32 percent felt it was "to keep at bay the supremacy of China and Japan." Another 26 percent thought it was "to collaborate better with China by breaking away from the intensifying Washington-Tokyo influence."
In order to become the Northeast Asian power balancer, 58 percent felt the country required economic competency, 20 percent diplomatic skills, 15 percent national defense capabilities, and 6 percent intensified Seoul-Washington relations.
Another survey conducted by a private polling agency TNS showed similar results, with nearly 70 percent of respondents expressing support toward the "balancer" policy.

By Lee Joo-hee