- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 18, 2012

SEOUL (AP) — The liberal son of North Korean refugees faces the conservative daughter of a late dictator in South Korea’s presidential election Wednesday. For all their differences, they’ve made remarkably similar campaign promises.

Liberal Moon Jae-in and conservative Park Geun-hye both want to extend a hand to rival North Korea, fight widespread government corruption, strengthen social welfare, help small companies, close growing gaps between rich and poor, ease heavy household debt to boost consumption, create jobs and rein in big corporations that have grown so powerful they threaten to eclipse national laws. They differ mainly in how far they want to go.

Polls showed the candidates in a dead heat ahead of elections to lead Asia’s fourth-largest economy and an important U.S. security bulwark in the region.

One reason for their unusual degree of consensus: Miss Park has had to tack to the center because voters are deeply dissatisfied with current conservative President Lee Myung-bak.

There’s deepening worry about the economy and disgust over the alleged involvement of aides close to Mr. Lee in corruption scandals. Many voters blame Mr. Lee’s hard-line views for encouraging North Korea to conduct nuclear and missile tests — including Pyongyang’s rocket launch last week. Some also blame the chill in North-South relations for two attacks blamed on Pyongyang that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010.

The effort to create distance with Mr. Lee has been difficult for Miss Park, whose popularity rests on a staunchly conservative base.

On North Korea, both candidates propose pulling back from Mr. Lee’s insistence that real engagement be linked to so-far-nonexistent nuclear disarmament progress by Pyongyang. Miss Park, however, insists on more conditions than Mr. Moon, who wants to restore large-scale government aid.

Mr. Moon is a former chief of staff to Mr. Lee’s predecessor, the late liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, who championed the so-called “sunshine policy” of no-strings-attached aid for Pyongyang.

Mr. Moon said on the eve of the election that he envisions a “politics that integrates all people. Politics that does not divide.”

A Moon election could lead to friction with Washington if new engagement with Pyongyang comes without any of the reciprocal nuclear disarmament progress that Washington demands from the North.

Mr. Moon also wants to drastically expand welfare, while Miss Park seeks more cautious improvement in the system, out of concern that expanding too much could hurt the economy, according to Chung Jin-young, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in South Korea.

Both candidates also have promised to strengthen the traditional alliance with the United States while boosting economic ties with booming China.

Miss Park is aiming to make history as the first female leader in South Korea — and modern Northeast Asia. But she also works under the shadow of her father, Park Chung-hee, who imposed his will on South Korea as dictator for 18 years until his intelligence chief killed him during a drinking party in 1979.

“I will become a president of the people’s livelihoods, who thinks only about the people,” Miss Park was quoted Tuesday by the Yonhap news agency. “I will restore the broken middle class.”

Miss Park’s father is both an asset and a soft spot. Many older South Koreans revere his strict economic policies and tough line against North Korea. But he’s also loathed for his odious treatment of opponents, including claims of torture and snap executions.

“Nostalgia for Park Chung-hee still runs deep in our society, particularly in the older generation,” Mr. Chung said.

A Park win would mean that South Korean voters believe she would evoke her father’s strong charisma as president and settle the country’s economic and security woes, Mr. Chung said.

Mr. Moon, on the other hand, was a young opponent of Park Chung-hee. Before working for Roh, whom Mr. Lee replaced in 2008, Mr. Moon was a human rights lawyer. He also spent time in jail for challenging the government of Park.

Mr. Moon’s parents lived in the North Korean port city of Hungnam before fleeing to South Korea aboard a U.S. military ship in December 1950, six months after the Korean War broke out. They were among an estimated 100,000 North Korean refugees transported by the United States from Hungnam to South Korea in daring evacuation operations that month.

Mr. Moon’s parents lived in an interim shelter on South Korea’s southeastern Geoje Island and later moved to a nearby village where Moon was born in 1952. Mr. Moon’s father, a former agriculture official at Hungnam City Hall, did manual labor at the camp while his mother peddled eggs.

A Moon win would be a clear judgment against the Lee government, said Hahm Sung-deuk, a political scientist at Korea University in Seoul. Mr. Moon’s appeal is that he “appears to be nice, honest and clean.”

With South Korea’s economy facing a 2 percent to 3 percent annual growth rate for this year and the next, the presidential candidates have focused on welfare and equality and fairness issues. Neither, however, has matched Mr. Lee’s campaign promise to boost South Korea’s economy by an ambitious 7 percent growth annually, apparently aware of the global economic challenges that beset the country’s export-driven economy.

Economic worries may be the focus of many voters, but North Korea has forced itself as an issue in the closing days of campaigning with its rocket launch last week, which the United States and others call a cover for a banned test of technology that could power a missile to the U.S. mainland. North Korea says it sought only to put a peaceful satellite into orbit.

The launch won’t be a major election influence, but it will consolidate conservative votes in favor of Miss Park, Mr. Hahm said. The launch will remind South Korean voters that “the North Koreans are unpredictable and belligerent,” he said.

The rocket launch could make it harder to quickly mend relations with North Korea, especially if Miss Park wins.

“She has a firm stance on national security, but she has few ideas on how to establish a peace regime and lacks the determination to do so,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea analyst at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea. “If Park becomes president, South-North relations would get better, but a big improvement in ties would be difficult.”

• AP writer Youkyung Lee contributed to this article.

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