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SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA—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.
There is 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 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 Lee has been difficult for Park, whose popularity rests on a staunchly conservative base.
On North Korea, both candidates propose pulling back from Lee’s insistence that real engagement 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.
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 also 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.
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.
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.
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 labour 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 per cent 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 per cent 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 favour 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.”
AP writer Youkyung Lee contributed to this story.