Both SKorean presidential hopefuls promise change
SEOUL, South Korea (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 hold similar views on the need to engage with Pyongyang and other issues.
One big reason: Voters are deeply dissatisfied with current President Lee Myung-bak, and particularly with his hardline stance on the country's authoritarian rival to the north. Park Geun-hye, who belongs to Lee's party, has had to tack to the center in her bid to become South Korea's first woman president.
Polls showed Park and Moon Jae-in in a dead heat ahead of elections to lead Asia's fourth-largest economy and an important U.S. security bulwark in the region.
There's deepening worry about the economy and disgust over the alleged involvement of aides close to Lee in corruption scandals.
Many voters blame Lee's hardline views for encouraging North Korea to conduct nuclear and missile tests -- including Pyongyang's rocket launch last week. Some also say the chill in North-South relations led to two attacks blamed on Pyongyang that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010.
The effort to create distance with Lee has been difficult for Park, whose popularity rests on a staunchly conservative, anti-North Korea base.
Both candidates propose pulling back from Lee's insistence that engagement with North Korea be linked to so-far-nonexistent nuclear disarmament progress by Pyongyang. Park, however, insists on more conditions than Moon, who wants to restore large-scale government aid.
Moon is a former chief of staff to Lee's predecessor, late President Roh Moo-hyun, who championed the so-called "sunshine policy" of no-strings-attached aid for Pyongyang.
Moon said on the eve of the election that he envisions a "politics that integrates all people. Politics that does not divide."
He wants an early summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Park has also held out the possibility of such a meeting, but only if it's "an honest dialogue on issues of mutual concern."
Whoever wins the presidential Blue House will set the initial tone for new North Korea policy not just in Seoul but in Washington, Beijing and Tokyo. All those governments have recently undergone an election, a change of leadership or both, and they have been waiting for a new South Korean leader before making any big decisions on North Korea policy.
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.
Moon and Park also agree on the need to fight widespread government corruption, strengthen social welfare, help small companies, close growing gaps between rich and poor, ease heavy household debt 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.
Moon wants to drastically expand welfare, while 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.
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," Park was quoted Tuesday by the Yonhap news agency. "I will restore the broken middle class."
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," 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, Chung said.
Moon, on the other hand, was a young opponent of Park Chung-hee. Before working for Roh, whom Lee replaced in 2008, Moon was a human rights lawyer. He also spent time in jail for challenging the government of Park.
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.
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 1953. 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. Moon's appeal is that he "appears to be nice, honest and clean."
With South Korea's economy facing a 2 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 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 Park, said Hahm. He said the launch will remind South Korean voters that "the North Koreans are unpredictable and belligerent."
The rocket launch could make it harder to quickly mend relations with North Korea, especially if 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."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)