Korea's choice: Dirty deals, snappy slogansSEOUL - Caravans of limousines and sound trucks are careening through the streets of the capital and cities and towns throughout the country blaring out the virtues of a dozen candidates for president. Schoolgirls form colorful choruses on the fringes of rallies, shouting slogans and singing campaign songs, Buddhist monks bang on wooden drums, and television comedians cavort and joke on portable stages as the candidates themselves dance along to the rhythm of the moment.
It's an orgy of democracy in action that won't stop until December 19 when voters decide on the candidate to succeed President Roh Moo-hyun, who can't run for a second five-year term under the constitution promulgated in June 1987 after decades of near-dictatorial rule. The election is significant as a test of the popularity of a left-leaning leadership that has relentlessly pursued reconciliation with North Korea ever since Roh's predecessor, the firebrand Kim Dae-jung, won by an eyelash in December 1997 at the height of the economic crisis that forced South Korea to beg the International Monetary Fund for a US$58 billion bailout plan.
Against a backdrop of campaign debate over the economy and North Korea, however, the issue of corruption hangs over the campaign as a glowering reminder of the forces behind Korea's rise as an economic power and their influence over every corner of society.
On the same day that the candidates formally opened their campaigns, Roh had to deny having accepted any bribes while promising not to veto a bill calling for investigation of Samsung companies through which the group's former lawyer accuses top executives of channeling slush funds for bribes. Meanwhile, Lee Myung-bak, the front-running conservative who calls Roh a "leftist" and blames him for economic ills, waits anxiously as prosecutors investigate a jailed businessman who says that Lee was linked to investment funds implicated in bribery and embezzlement.
Accustomed though Koreans may be to allegations of bribery in high places, the coincidence of campaigning and investigations definitely adds a fission of excitement that might otherwise be missing both in the legal cases and on the campaign trail. The question is whether the investigations will have some unforeseen effect on an election in which the winner will be lucky to get 40% of the votes.
"All eyes are on the case of Kim Kyoung-joon, the investment fund manager who was extradited from the US to face fraud and embezzlement charges in Korea," writes conservative lawyer Kim Sang-chul. "The fear is that the investigation may determine the outcome of the election. The essential issue in this year's presidential election is whether the leftist political power will come to an end or continue in power."
The worst nightmare of conservatives is that Chung Dong-young, the candidate of the United New Democratic Party, with a popularity rating of less than 20%, will zoom up in the polls while conservative votes that would have gone to Lee Myung-bak, the candidate of the Grand National Party (GNP), drift over to Lee Hoi-chang, the losing GNP candidate in the 1997 and 2002 elections, now running as an independent.
Chung, a former TV anchorman who served as Roh's unification minister, is dedicating his campaign in part to his record in working for North-South Korean rapprochement and his pledge to follow through on wide-ranging agreements reached between Roh and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il at their summit in Pyongyang in October.
That message, however, has only limited appeal. Support for North-South rapprochement was not enough to stop the factional infighting that tore apart the Uri Party that lofted Roh to the presidency five years ago. Chung's United New Democratic Party is a hastily contrived organization, formed just a few months ago from quarreling elements of the Uri Party as well as the remnants of Kim Dae-jung's old Millennium Democratic Party. Its sole purpose was to be able to field a single candidate to oppose Lee Myung-bak (M B Lee), whose popularity in the polls appeared unbeatable.
A resurgence of conservatism, however, is working against M B Lee at a time when he most needs loyalist support to keep his candidacy from eroding during the investigation of his links to suspect investment funds.
The independent Lee Hoi-chang (H C Lee), besides counting on a record for integrity as a former supreme court justice, is playing on right-wing sentiment, campaigning as a "true conservative" with a "clean record". H C Lee, still well behind M B Lee in the polls, has no trouble blaming North Korea's nuclear program on "the ambiguous stance" of the current government, that he accuses of having coddled North Korea's nuclear ambitions by its willingness to compromise. H C Lee's conservative appeal has forced M B Lee and the GNP to pull back from what had appeared as a carefully moderate view on North Korea.
The GNP has had to mute its advocacy of a "middle way" in dealing with North Korea, preferring not to offend deeply conservative members to whom H C Lee still offers the best hope, despite his two previous losing runs at the presidency. Having offered conditional support for moves toward reconciliation, M B Lee now says he doesn't exactly support the outlook of his own party on North Korea and will demand North Korea give up its nuclear weapons program as a prerequisite for aid, but he prefers to talk mostly about economic reform.
Following both these conservatives as they campaign through this frantically capitalist capital, one might get the impression that South Korea is in the midst of a severe economic slump rather than growing economically at a rate of several percent a year. Both of them promise economic reforms that they say will elevate employment among young people angered over the difficulties of finding jobs commensurate with their education levels, and both say the government is at fault for socialist policies that discouraged the business groups or chaebol that form the backbone of the Korean economy.
M B Lee, on the basis of his incredible rise as a young man to the chairmanship of Hyundai Engineering and Construction in the 1970s, is more far more specific than H C Lee about what he will do. At the heart of his economic program lies what he sees as the need to loosen restraints that keep the chaebol from controlling banks or holding more than limited stakes in other companies in their groups.
The scandals surrounding both the Samsung group and his own financial dealings, however, may curb any appetite for a reversal of government policies that many critics believe give the chaebol overweening power to the detriment of small and medium enterprise, not to mention millions of people on corporate payrolls.
M B Lee's supporters shrug off charges of his alleged financial misdeeds. A common refrain is that "they won't make any difference" to voters. People who offer that type of comment are quick to add, however, that "no one knows what will happen".
The Samsung case has yet to touch any of the candidates directly but fosters anti-chaebol sentiment. "The business community is worried," says a government finance official. "This is kind of a pity for us, but we think we will get over this."
While conservatives are mired in explaining away the scandals, Chung has no trouble stressing the need to "move forward" and build on the record of reconciliation with North Korea. His campaign slogan, "Happy Family", suggests an aversion to the power of the chaebol that lord it over the economy.
At one rally, enthusiasts were seen holding placards saying "Free Hugs", as Chung hugged a succession of middle-aged women who rose to join him on stage. He might have been saying Koreans should embrace North Korea too while rejecting the angry talk of the conservatives who still reign supreme in Korean society.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.