- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 19, 2002

SEOUL South Koreans voted today in a presidential election thrown into turmoil by the last-minute defection of a top ally to front-runner Roh Moo-hyun.

Voting began at 6 a.m. on a cold but brilliantly sunny day, with Mr. Roh of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party, a human rights lawyer, trying to hold off challenger Lee Hoi-chang, a former prime minister and leader of the opposition Grand National Party in the quest for a five-year term in South Korea's executive Blue House.

The two have differed sharply on North Korea, with Mr. Lee vowing to end the conciliatory "sunshine policy" of outgoing President Kim Dae-jung and Mr. Roh vowing to extend and expand it.

At polling places around Seoul this morning, voters were still trying to absorb the stunning news that millionaire soccer executive Chung Mong-joon had abruptly ended his electoral pact with Mr. Roh.

The extremely popular Mr. Chung whose support was crucial in pushing the MDP candidate into the lead after trailing in polls all year was infuriated when Mr. Roh said during a joint rally yesterday, "If the United States fought a war with North Korea, we would mediate."

Mr. Chung said the remarks had violated the terms of their alliance by calling into question South Korea's reliability as an ally of the United States.

At a municipal tax office that served as a polling place, about 15 elderly voters lined up this morning waiting to vote.

Most said they had already planned to vote for Mr. Lee, but that the collapse of the Roh-Chung alliance had confirmed their distrust of the MDP candidate.

"What Roh has said in this campaign on the United States is very dangerous for South Korea," said retiree Lee Hyun-ma after casting his ballot.

But Mr. Roh's dovish stance has helped him among many younger voters, who have taken a far more skeptical view of South Korea's longstanding military alliance with Washington.

His campaign has benefited from a surge in anti-U.S. sentiment, building on public anger over the acquittal last month of two U.S. soldiers in the accidental death of two South Korean teenage girls.

In a sign of the heightened tension, U.S. commanders have imposed a new weeklong nighttime curfew for the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed here and warned American soldiers against wearing their fatigues in the local Seoul airport.

The moves were made to "minimize unnecessary exposure of personnel and their families during the national elections," Army Maj. Holly Pierce told the Stars and Stripes military newspaper.

At a second polling station on the ground floor of a teachers' union building in a residential Seoul neighborhood, Lee Kyung-wan, 24, said he had voted for leftist populist Kwon Young-ghil of the Democratic Labor Party.

"Both of the main candidates represent the old ways to me," said Mr. Lee, who is a student and works in his family's grocery store in Seoul.

A larger turnout among the country's 35 million eligible voters was expected to boost Mr. Roh, whose more youthful supporters are considered less likely to vote.

Campaigning here in the capital yesterday, Mr. Lee vowed to take a tougher line with North Korea.

"The clearest distinction between myself and candidate Roh is that I believe the sunshine policy is a failure," Mr. Lee told reporters.

Mr. Roh has vowed to build on the conciliatory approach to Pyongyang, a stance that could put him at odds with the Bush administration if elected.

"We have to choose between war and peace," he told a large public rally yesterday. "Lee Hoi-chang's policy seems to be a policy of war. I hope you will vote for peace."

The Bush administration, anxious not to be seen as trying to influence the vote, has kept mum on the leading candidates, but many here are convinced the United States would warmly welcome a Lee victory.

The candidates have also offered distinct approaches to South Korea's economy, with Mr. Lee backing a deregulatory program to encourage the country's huge "chaebol" conglomerates, while Mr. Roh promised tighter regulation and curbing the chaebols' power.

The two have also clashed over Mr. Roh's proposal to decentralize power by shifting the nation's capital from Seoul to the poorer central region of Chungchong.

Sharp generational differences could tilt the campaign, which has seen a fair amount of personal mudslinging in its final days.

Mr. Lee, 67, scores best with the country's older voters, who retain a sense of gratitude for the U.S. military's role in the 1950-53 Korean War.

Younger voters, with little or no memory of the war and a growing feeling of resentment at perceived U.S. insensitivity, have sided largely with Mr. Roh, who is 11 years younger than his opponent.

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