SEOUL South Koreans began voting today for a new parliament in an election that could affect the two trademark policies of President Kim Dae-jung economic reforms and engagement with North Korea.
Three days before the election, Mr. Kim weighed in with the dramatic announcement of a first-ever summit with the country’s bitter enemy, North Korea. Still, many analysts said it was not clear how that would effect the tight race.
With up to 40 percent of votes still undecided, Mr. Kim’s ruling party was running neck and neck with the main opposition Grand National Party.
Monday’s announcement of the June 12-14 summit brought opposition criticism of the timing.
“The South-North summit, announced only three days before the election, is a despicable political conspiracy,” said Lee Hoi-chang, head of the opposition party, which is the largest party in the outgoing parliament with 129 seats.
Mr. Kim’s Millennium Democratic Party, with 103 seats in the outgoing parliament, is unlikely to emerge from voting with an absolute majority, analysts say. That would force it to find a coalition partner.
A total of 1,040 candidates are vying for 227 seats to be filled by direct vote. Another 46 members will be chosen by proportional representation system, which counts the total number of votes to each party.
All four major parties of South Korea depend on regional support, so policies have less influence on voting.
Mr. Kim, two years into his five-year term, is seeking a mandate for his economic reforms and engagement with the North’s communist government.
The summit has considerably muzzled opposition criticism that his “sunshine” policy has failed to produce concessions from the North.
Still, some voters remained skeptical.
“I think the summit is only a show for elections. And whatever outcome the summit would have, it would take a long time for us to see,” said Kim Jong-tae, 46, an architect. “I don’t think it would affect voters at all.”
The summit could bring the ruling party votes from those with relatives in North Korea who hope it will bring progress on resuming family reunifications, halted since 1985.
Millions of North Koreans immigrated to South Korea after the 1945 division of the Korean peninsula and during the 1950-53 Korean War, and most have lost touch with their families in the North.
Mr. Kim has said family reunions will top the agenda of his summit talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, to be held in the North’s capital, Pyongyang.
The border is the world’s most heavily armed, and there is no mail or other direct means of communications between the two Koreas.