Planned summit with North could turn S. Korean vote

Ruling party reboundingfrom expected defeats

April 13, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SEOUL, South Korea -- For weeks this country saw nothing but topsy-turvy maneuvering in preparation for today's mid-term parliamentary elections, which, for all of the pirouettes, seemed destined to leave Kim Dae-jung a lame duck for the remaining three years of his presidency.

The governing party lost its main coalition partner in a bitter defection; a few days later, the leading opposition party splintered. Meanwhile, civic groups, taking advantage of the country's high Internet usage, began a cyberspace campaign against politicians, mostly in the opposition, who they said were unfit for office because of past corruption.

But after the announcement Monday of a June summit meeting between Kim and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, all bets are off. For the first time in the campaign, political analysts here say that Kim's party could win or, at the very least, stave off a debilitating defeat.

"It's clear that the ruling party is reaping benefits from the South-North summit and will be likely to emerge as a majority force in the new parliament," said the newspaper Munhwa Ilbo.

The latest opposition polls show that 67 percent of potential voters say the summit meeting announcement will affect voters' choices, prompting the Grand National Party's vice president, Kim Deong-ryong, to denounce the meeting as a "diversion of public attention."

Officials of Kim's Millennium Democratic Party, meanwhile, have steadfastly denied there are domestic political motivations behind the June talks, and are already seeking to manage high public expectations, particularly among families separated by the breakup up of the country at the close of World War II.

In a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, Kim warned that the public should not expect miracles overnight.

A strong showing by the governing party would strengthen Kim's hand in promoting his so-called Sunshine Policy of engagement with the North. And many people believe that the talk of increased investment to rebuild the country's Cold War enemy was meant to help win over South Korea's powerful business conglomerates, which have traditionally supported the president's conservative opponents.

Korean political analysts have said for months that Kim's indifferent popular support ranks as one of the country's biggest political enigmas of recent years.

The president's biography is the stuff of political legend. As a lifelong dissident and democracy advocate who was imprisoned and tortured by former governments, he overcame long odds and finally won the presidency in 1997, in the freest election the country has known. Taking office during the worst regional economic crisis in decades, Kim pushed through bold reforms, leading his country to a bracing recovery -- including 10 percent growth last year and sharply lower unemployment.

But until last week, opinion polls showed that voters were still clinging to powerful currents of regionalism long at play in Korean politics, or were simply indifferent to national politics.

Unlike most post-war leaders, who came from the southeast or close to the capital, Kim hails from Cholla Province, in the southwest. And strong regional stereotypes that have branded Cholla residents as clannish and abrasive have eroded his popularity. There has also been grumbling about the emergence of an underclass amid booming growth, and complaints that Kim has allowed too much foreign economic presence.

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