- The Washington Times - Monday, December 16, 2002

SEOUL President Bush and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il aren't on the ballot, but the two are expected to play decisive roles when South Koreans elect a successor to President Kim Dae-jung later this week.
The spiraling tension between Washington and Pyongyang, culminating in the virtual collapse of the 1994 accord to halt the North's nuclear weapons program, presents political problems for both main candidates and could tilt a race that pollsters say is too close to call.
"It looks like it will go right down to the wire, and the big question now is whether the sentiment against North Korea is stronger than the sentiment against the United States," said Balbina K. Hwang, a Korean scholar at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
"I think the anti-American surge is overplayed in the media, but you're starting to see a frenzy that's feeding on itself," she said.
The race, a watershed in South Korean politics in any number of ways, pits Roh Moo-hyun, a human rights lawyer representing Mr. Kim's Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), against Lee Hoi-chang, the head of the opposition Grand National Party (GNP) who narrowly lost to Mr. Kim in the 1997 race.
Mr. Lee, who favors a tougher stand against Pyongyang than the "Sunshine Policy" pioneered by Mr. Kim, was the early front-runner, only to be passed in the polls when Mr. Roh engineered an alliance with a wealthy third-party candidate who dropped out and endorsed the MDP candidate.
But South Korean election laws forbid public polling in the weeks leading up to Thursday's vote, in a region where political fortunes can shift with stunning swiftness.
North Korea, which has a history of clumsy efforts to influence South Korean elections, said last week that it was re-starting a mothballed nuclear power plant that U.S., South Korean and Japanese officials fear could be used to produce fuel for nuclear bombs.
Pyongyang said it was responding to the decision pushed by the United States to cut off promised fuel oil shipments under the "Agreed Framework" of 1994, a decision made after the Bush administration learned that North Korea had violated promises under the accord.
Simultaneously, the streets of this bustling capital city have seen the largest anti-American demonstrations in years. They were sparked by the acquittal by a U.S. military court of two American soldiers whose military vehicle crushed two schoolgirls to death.
President Bush called President Kim Dae-jung Friday evening to express his personal regrets for the deaths and "pledged to work closely with the South Korean government to prevent such accidents in the future," according to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
The foreign policy tensions present opportunities and headaches for both of the leading candidates, political commentators contend.
Having long warned that Mr. Kim was too generous in his efforts to reconcile with the North, Mr. Lee stands to gain if voters decide a firmer hand is needed against Pyongyang.
Though saying he favors contacts with the North, Mr. Lee has promised "sunshine without the Sunshine Policy," and vows to cut off humanitarian and other assistance unless North Korea visibly changes its ways.
"Reckless aid to the North has only resulted in the North's developing weapons of mass destruction," the GNP said in a party statement last week.
But just where voters will channel their anger isn't clear.
Mr. Lee has had to acknowledge the rising unhappiness with the conduct of U.S. forces on the peninsula. With 37,000 American troops still in the South a half-century after the end of the Korean War, even the conservative Mr. Lee has expressed public sympathy with the goals of the street demonstrators and said the agreement governing U.S. forces must be amended.
Mr. Roh, meanwhile, promises to continue the "Sunshine Policy" and pursue dialogue with Pyongyang despite the deep skepticism in Washington.
While neither party calls for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, Mr. Roh has said he believes Washington's approach to North Korea is unbalanced. The temporary seizure of a cargo of North Korean Scud missiles bound for Yemen was seen by many Koreans as a ploy by Washington to influence the South Korean vote.
But Mr. Roh has had to be careful not to go too far, with many voters, especially older ones with a memory of the Korean War and its aftermath, still strongly suspicious of the North and anxious to stay close to Washington.
Some analysts think the intense anti-American street protests might even cut into Mr. Roh's support by boosting the vote for Kwon Young-ghil, whose Democratic Labor Party runs a distant third in the polls.
Mr. Kwon has taken an even more active anti-American tack, joining one of the many vigils near the U.S. Embassy and calling for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Mr. Kim last week appealed to all candidates to lower the rhetoric for fear that anti-American campaign talk could have consequences later. In past races, candidates routinely fought to portray themselves as the leader best able to work with the United States.
"I think the old U.S.-South Korean alliance is in for a big change no matter who wins," said Marcus Noland, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics in Washington.
"The people in the Bush administration who might be thinking that a Lee administration will ride in as the cavalry to rescue them are in for a surprise," he said. "There might be a honeymoon with Lee compared to Roh, but that's all it will be a honeymoon, and the same problems and issues will have be to dealt with."
The defense issue has also exposed a generational divide that could prove crucial.
At 54, Mr. Roh is 13 years younger than Mr. Lee and outpolled the GNP leader by a 2-to-1 margin among voters under 40, noted Jae Ho Chung, an associate professor at Seoul National University's international relations department.
The younger generation knows South Korea only as a budding economic superstar, a country in which the uneasy peace with the North has been the norm and China, far more than the United States, represents the economic future.
According to South Korean election officials, voters under 40 make up 48.3 percent of the 35 million registered voters, with voters in their 30s the largest single age group. South Korean elections typically draw participation rates of 90 percent and higher.
Mr. Lee has hammered away at financial scandals in the Kim Dae-jung government reaching even Mr. Kim's own family. But Mr. Roh has had some success turning the issue to his advantage, arguing that the entire generation of corrupt, money-oriented politicians must give way to a more honest group of politicians.
"The younger generation sees Roh in some measure as part of their own achievements in the world," Mr. Jae said.
Regional and personal loyalties, which were critical in past South Korean votes, seem less important this year.
In addition to their distinct positions on North Korea, Mr. Lee and Mr. Roh have pronounced differences on South Korea's economy, which grew at a respectable 4 percent last year but faces serious competitive challenges in years ahead.
In their final televised debate, Mr. Roh made a sharp attack on the "chaebols," the huge, politically connected conglomerates that led South Korea's economic boom. Mr. Roh, who practiced labor law, argued that the chaebols had corrupted the political system and had to be curbed.
Mr. Lee, in contrast, said a blanket condemnation of the chaebols was misguided and argued that the MDP program amounted to more government regulation.
"Chaebols are like rice bowls," he said. "If damaged and useless, dump them. But they should be cleaned if they are just dirty."
Mr. Roh was gaining steadily in the last polls taken, but a big question mark looms over whether his youthful supporters will turn out in force on Election Day. Despite Mr. Lee's deficit in the polls and the difficult international situation, many political experts are still betting the race is the GNP candidate's to lose, according to Mr. Jae.
And Mr. Lee has one more South Korean tradition on his side, noted Kirk Larsen, a history professor at the Korea Foundation.
"In the past, South Korean voters always made candidates run and lose at least once before they were elected. If you go by that precedent, it's Lee's turn now."

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