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SOUTH KOREA: Pyongyang Can Queer Presidential Elections Pitch

Analysis by Ahn Mi-Young

SEOUL, Aug 23 2007 (IPS) - What may have won businessman Lee Myung-Bak a nomination as front-runner for the Dec. 19 presidential elections favoured to replace left-wing incumbent Roh Moo-Hyun is public sentiment for a return to the days when South Korea enjoyed a strong economy.

But Lee has a tough task ahead of the elections. He must resolve infighting in his Grand National Party (GNP) and also deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il who has the capacity and the motivation to influence the elections in favour of the ruling Uri (our open) party.

‘’Nobody knows what kind of cards Kim Jong Il will pull out to outwit Lee’s drive towards the presidency," Prof. Choi Jin at the Korea University told IPS. "No surprise if Kim comes up with some kind of card that could put the pro-North Korea (ruling) party at an advantage at the upcoming summit. Consider that Kim has smartly played his security card to back up South Korea’s pro-North Korea politicians during past elections in South Korea."

Although Lee has promised a generous aid package to North Korea if Pyongyang fulfils its promise to scrap its nuclear programme, he has lately been questioning why the summit has been timed to be held only two months away from the December election. Already Lee’s GNP has criticised the Roh government&#39s generous aid programmes and policy of engagement with North Korea.

No meaningful pro-government candidate has emerged to challenge Lee, but the upcoming bilateral summit with North Korea could make the elections hard to predict. The summit, postponed from Sep. 28 to Oct. 2, could well queer the pitch in favour of the ruling party.

Lee, called the ‘bulldozer’ for the pushy ways that made him a successful executive at Hyundai Engineering and Construction and as mayor of Seoul (2002-2006), is more than up to the job.

Having risen to the top of Hyundai in his early 30s, despite the handicaps of being born in a lower middle-class family, Lee grew to be an icon among the salaried classes. "I will accept the nomination as the mandate to revive the economy and integrate the division of the society," Lee said in his acceptance speech, Monday.

After ten months of vicious infighting, his win was gracefully accepted by his close rival Park Geun-Hye, 55, daughter of former president and military strongman Gen. Park Chung-Hee who orchestrated the war-stricken country’s rise to become a regional economic power in the 1960s.

Analysts do not rule out a change of mind by Park who may yet break away to form her own party and challenge Lee. "That could happen if Lee fails to cope with a flurry of charges of fraudulent real estate deals that involve his relatives, or if Lee displeases Park’s supporters by unfair distribution of authorities between his supporters and hers," said Prof. Kim Hyong-Jun, an analyst at Myungji University.

Media reports say Lee’s relatives made up to 28 million US dollars in real estate speculation. Such allegations can be damaging in this country of 49 million people who must make do with the limited land resources of the peninsula.

For ordinary South Koreans, weary of the business-unfriendly government of President Roh, Lee has enormous appeal as a successful businessman. Middle-class South Koreans are often depicted as groaning under heavy tax. There is a heavy-handed restriction on business investment, making it hard for young workers to find jobs.

Against this backdrop, Lee has smartly positioned himself as a business-minded chief executive office (CEO) who can also bring in his skills and ability to knock the economy back into shape in the same way he turned around Hyundai in his 27-year stint with the business group.

With the campaign tagline ‘7-4-7’ he has promised to put the economy back at 7 percent GDP growth rate, a per-capita income of 40,000 dollars and the status of the world’s seventh-largest economic power for South Korea.

But there is concern around his narrow focus. "He ought to convince the people that he would be able to strike a balance between his leadership as a business CEO and a potential head of state CEO. A business CEO is task-oriented. But a head of state must have ethical and process-oriented value to care about. He must watch what he says, for instance, he tends to often blunder by speaking too bluntly in public speeches," Prof. Choi at Korea University said.

Lee has little time for complacency. "The race has just started. A simple tagline will not pay off. Lee must provide a clear and concrete vision for grassroots people to regain confidence, and he needs to provide vision for business to be motivational for investment. Otherwise, the current support is such a fragile thing it can change anytime," said an editorial in the ‘Donga’ newspaper.

Lee’s success will also depend on his quest to build what will likely become the biggest construction project in the history of the country – a 530 km-long waterway canal from Seoul in the northwest to Pusan in the southeast. There are concerns that it will negatively impact the environment, although Lee has said the canal will be an efficient way to move goods and reduce pollution by reducing road traffic.

Others think Lee needs to come up with a better offering. "Lee could lose his comfortable lead unless he brings to his campaign something beyond such a fragile programme like canal. He needs to offer something more compelling, viable and concrete, especially after the Oct. 2 summit, which is likely to favour the left-wing ruling party," said Kim of Myungji University.

Lee earned a green image by tearing down a giant overpass in the heart of the capital to recover a stream that had been buried underneath for about 50 years. When he unveiled the project in 2002 as Seoul mayor he was met with a storm of opposition from some 220,000 small business concerns located around the overpass.

Undaunted, he took to the streets and indefatigably met one merchant after another, convincing each that the project would eventually benefit everybody. He promised to purchase some of their products and offered loans to relocate their businesses. "I made some 4,000 rounds of visits to meet one businessman after another," Lee recalled later.

Built at a cost of some 400 million dollars, the nearly four-mile long Cheonggyecheon stream park, opened in late 2005 with restored ancient bridges and modern sculptures, is now one of the most popular spots in the country.

However, there is a sad story to that success. One trader killed himself in 2005, unable to make a living after he lost his sales outlet in the area. "Mr. Mayor, please remember your promise to us," he wrote in a dying memo.

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