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Asia

South Korea prepares to decide

Is South Korea set to have its first-ever female head of state, the daughter of a dictator, or will a liberal candidate replace the conservative incumbent? The electorate appears to be evenly split.

For the ruling party's Park Geun-hya, Wednesday's elections represent a second attempt at the presidency.

In her previous bid in 2007, she lost out to current President Lee Myung-bak in the running for the nomination of her conservative Saenuri-Party (New Frontier Party).

Lee's five-year term ends in February 2013 and, under the constitution, he cannot be elected again.

The election on December 19 could be the finest hour of 60-year-old Park. A win would make her the first-ever female president of Asia's fourth largest economic power. She has long been regarded as the most promising candidate.

However, because most opposition parties have united around a common candidate as her challenger - nominating the United Democratic Party's Moon Jae-in - observers expect a neck-and-neck race right up to the end.   

Park Geun-Hye (Photo: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/GettyImages)

Park has apologized for the rights violations commited under her father

The United Progressive Party had been due to enter its own candidate for the race. However, Lee Jung-hee bowed out on Sunday, hoping to help avert a conservative victory.

Daughter of a dictator

Notably, Park Geun-hye is no unknown in South Korea, being the daughter of the long-term dictator Park Chung-hee, who seized power in a coup in 1961. He went on to rule the country with an iron fist before he was shot and killed in 1979 by the head of his own intelligence service. Park Chung-hee's name, however, does not have purely negative associations, being directly linked with the economic rise of South Korea, for which he laid the foundations. To this day, the assessment of the Park era remains extremely controversial.

This, of course, is something that his daughter understands. The fact that she had never taken an unequivocal stance on the human rights violations committed under her father had threatened to damage her campaign and place it in real danger. In September, Park decided to go on the offensive. In a live, televised speech, she apologized to the victims of the military regime for the rights offenses committed at the time.

She offered "to those who suffered during this time and whose rights were violated," her "sincere apologies."

For Lee Eun-jeung, a professor at the Institute for Korean Studies at the Free University in Berlin, this illustrates a quite fundamental problem for Park: that, at least in her own opinion, she sees herself as representative of her father.

"Her political goals are not clear," said Lee. "She would like to defend his reputation or even his renown; that is something she has stressed several times. However, beyond that, I cannot see a clear political agenda from her."

Moon Jae-in, the most popular South Korean opposition presidential candidate (Photo: REUTERS/Jang Cheol-young)

Moon has promoted himself as a "man of the little people"

Lee believes, despite this, the unmarried Park, who lives alone, exerts an obvious attraction on the population, even if it is symbolic. "For many people the past is simply no longer relevant."

Former rights lawyer

As the opposition candidate, Moon Jae-in has been a recurring actor on the country's political stage. The 59-year-old son of a North Korean refugee, he once worked as a lawyer, with human and civil rights his special areas of expertise. In 2002, he ran the presidential campaign of president-to-be Roh Moo-hyun. Following Roh's election, Moon held several posts in the administration up until the end of the legislative period in 2008.

"On paper, he stands more for redistribution and economic justice," said Lee of Moon. "He would not necessarily represent the interests of corporations." On his election posters, he poses as a "man of the little people." However, for Lee that is primarily campaign rhetoric. "Such slogans and actual policy are two different things."

An unavoidable topic

Where one election theme is concerned, both candidates demonstrate outright unity. Both Park and Moon have said that they wish to revitalize relations with North Korea. After years of cautious rapprochement - the so-called Sunshine Policy - relations between Seoul and Pyongyang have distinctly cooled under the current president. "I think that both Mrs Park and Mr Moon have no choice but to take this change of direction," said Lee.

"With the line that the administration of Lee Mying-bak has taken so far on North Korea, the South Korean government has isolated itself, "he added.

In the case of the conservative candidate, it remains questionable how much room for maneuver she will actually have on the issue. "I fear that those around her would not accept it if she followed a completely different policy than the current government," said Lee Eun-jung.

A North Korean soldiers walk at the Military Demarcation Line (Photo: EPA/KIM HEE-CHUL)

The most fiercely-guarded border in the world divides the Korean peninsula

Seoul has not troubled itself greatly recently in the sphere of neighborly relations, agrees Rüdiger Frank, an East Asia expert from Vienna University. According to Frank, it is difficult to clearly attribute blame for the poor relations between the countries.

"There are a whole series of military exercises South Korea performs in cooperation with the United States," said Frank. "These of course have their place and tradition. However, it is also clear that the North Koreans possibly see these as an attack scenario and feel threatened as a result."

One further development in past months has contributed to the worsening relations between North and South. South Korea has, with the agreement of the United States, dramatically increased the range of its own rockets. "It is fact that South Korea can now reach any part of North Korean territory with its rockets. Before, there had been an arrangement that banned them from having such rockets."

Tough challenges

However the election turns out, some difficult tasks face the next South Korean head of state. The outgoing president leaves behind a country in which the gap between rich and poor has grown ever wider, and in which a middle class hardly exists any more, according to Lee Eun-jeung.

"Viewed as a whole, things are going well for one part of society, but not so well for a larger part."

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