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S. Korea Elections Could Bring Political Overhaul


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

South Korea appears poised to shift directions in its presidential election this week. The key issue is the South Korean economy. And polls show voters leaning conservative after 10 years of liberal government. The conservative candidate, Lee Myung-bak, is popular even though he's been tainted by financial scandal.

NPR's Mike Shuster has more from Seoul.

MIKE SHUSTER: It's gotten really nasty in the final days of South Korea's presidential campaign.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language).

SHUSTER: A speaker in downtown Seoul accuses Lee Myung-bak, the frontrunner, of lying. He should quit the race, the speaker says, a normal person would. Because he won't, we must reject him. Similar accusations were leveled at Lee during the final televised presidential debate Sunday night. Several of Lee's opponents called for him to dropout because, they said, of his flagrant lies in connection with the collapse of an investment company that Lee was involved with seven years ago.

Lee declined to respondent, instead focusing on his experience as a long-time CEO in business and a one-term mayor of Seoul.

Mr. LEE MYUNG-BAK (Presidential Candidate, South Korea): (Speaking foreign language)

SHUSTER: I'm an entrepreneurial leader, Lee said. I have experience in the private and public sector. I'm pro-company and pro-market against regulation, he added. The economy will grow under my leadership.

In a field of 11 candidates, including one well-known liberal and another well-known conservative, Lee Myung-bak has held a strong lead in all the polls for the past few months. For one key reason, says David Straub, the former state department official, now a scholar at Stanford University.

Mr. DAVID STRAUB (Former Director of Korean Affairs, U.S. State Department; Scholar, Stanford University): He's perceived as someone who has real confidence. The basic argument these days is between confidence and corruption. The progressives say that Lee Myung-bak is corrupt and has been involved in scandals, whereas Lee supporters - and apparently much of the South Korean public argue - that the real consideration this time around is competence.

SHUSTER: The rules of the election are simple. Whoever wins the most votes is elected president no matter that in the crowded field, it could be substantially under 50 percent. In Korea, the president is elected for a single five-year term.

Lee's likely election represents a substantial shift in political outlook here. For the past 10 years, presidents sought to change the old authoritarian political culture of South Korea. They emphasize (unintelligible) with North Korea, the so-called sunshine policy toward the north, young people tended to vote liberal. This year, that has changed says Korea University political economist, Sun Duk-han(ph).

Mr. SUN DUK-HAN (Political Economist, Korea University): This time, youngsters, they're the only one who care about their jobs. They only need their jobs and their job opportunities. Therefore, they are the only one concerned about economy.

SHUSTER: The leading liberal candidate is Chung Dong-Young, a former TV journalist and cabinet administer under outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun. His candidacy has faltered, though, in large part because he is perceived to be too close to the current administration, says David Straub.

Mr. STRAUB: President Roh became so unpopular so fast after his election that Chung has found it vital that he run away from President Roh. And he has tried to do that, but without very much success.

SHUSTER: A last minute surprise may have hurt Lee Myung-bak or at least cut into the size of his victory. A 7-year-old videotape surfaced on Sunday showing Lee admitting his connection to the investment company known as BBK, which later collapsed as a result of stock manipulation. Lee has denied any wrongdoing and prosecutors cleared him earlier this month. But the tape was played in parliament by his opponents after a failed attempt to blackmail Lee's campaign. Today, the parliament narrowly adopted the long, strictly partisan lines, a bill to appoint of special prosecutor in the case.

South Korea may be facing a situation where a newly elected president could be investigated from his first moments in office over a financial scandal that just won't go away.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mike Shuster
Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.