SEOUL — Blasting off just one week before South Korea's presidential election, North Korea's rocket launch appears aimed at not only capturing the attention of the wider world but also of affecting politics south of the demilitarized zone.
The presidential vote, set for Wednesday, is close. The latest polls show Park Geun-hye, the candidate of the ruling Saenuri Party, leading Moon Jae-in of the Opposition Democratic United Party, by up to 3.9 percentage points.
With no polls permitted in the final week, and with Miss Park's lead having eroded in recent days, North Korea may be hoping to boost the left-leaning Mr. Moon over the conservative Miss Park.
Miss Park, 60, is the daughter of ex-general and former president Park Chung-hee, who seized power in 1961.He ruled South Korea until his assassination in 1979. Park had implemented the "economic miracle" that transformed South Korea from poverty to powerhouse at the cost of suppressing democracy.
The left wing has seized upon her father's legacy, tagging Miss Park as a "dictator's daughter."
Despite being the first woman with a chance of winning South Korea's presidency, Miss Park has not leveraged her gender. She has been dubbed "the ice princess" by the media in reference to her apparent cold public personality, and has failed to impress viewers in televised debates.
However, she is politically astute. Facing polls predicting a defeat in the April parliamentary elections, Miss Park steered her right-wing party toward the middle ground, delivering a victory — although with a reduced majority.
Miss Park, who is also known as "Queen of Elections," reportedly traveled more than 4,000 miles while campaigning.
Mr. Moon 59, is the former chief of staff to the late President Roh Moo-hyun, who came to power amid massive anti-American protests in 2002.
Mr. Roh was the strongest champion of the "sunshine policy" of engagement with North Korea. His suicide in 2009 during corruption investigations of his family shocked the nation.
Before entering politics, Mr. Moon was imprisoned for protesting against Park Chung-hee. He served in the elite special forces and recently demonstrated his virility by taking part in a judo display. Mr. Moon also became a human rights lawyer.
Voters are divided along demographic lines.
A poll last week by Korea Open Society found a narrow majority of Koreans in their 20s to 40s support Mr. Moon, while the overwhelming majority 50 and older back Miss Park.
A key election issue is "economic democratization."
Many Koreans believe the gap between rich and poor is widening, particularly in business. Mr. Moon demands reforms of giant, family-run groups such as Samsung and Hyundai, which dominate the economy and, critics claim, abuse their power and stifle small firms.
Miss Park acknowledges the problems of such firms, which were encouraged during her father's rule, but she has resisted calls for change.
Regarding North Korea, both candidates have distanced themselves from incumbent President Lee Myung-bak's policy of withholding contact and humanitarian aid until Pyongyang halts its nuclear programs. Mr. Moon has said he wishes to hold an inter-Korean summit and restart unconditional economic contacts with the North. Miss Park favors increased economic ties.
Miss Park is seen as strongly pro-American and, unlike Mr. Moon, speaks fluent English.
Mr. Moon has said he would practice what he calls "balanced diplomacy" toward the United States and China.
The United States is South Korea's major strategic ally with 28,000 troops in country, but China has overtaken America as Korea's largest trading partner. China is also believed to be a restraining force on North Korea.
Although Miss Park once met now-deceased North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, Pyongyang state media has lambasted her and her "traitorous" party. Given North Korean preference for Mr. Moon's opposition party, pundits say Wednesday's rocket launch may have been aimed at undercutting Miss Park's popularity.
"Twenty or 30 years ago, when North Korea committed military provocations before elections, it gave help to the conservative side, but that is no longer true," said Kim Tae-woo, an independent analyst on North Korean strategic issues.
"Now that they have nuclear devices, an increasing number of South Koreans believe we need a government that can reconcile with North Korea."