This Dark Horse Could Take Korea in a New Direction

It's a key question in Asian politics: Who will succeed Kim Dae Jung as President of South Korea? The 79-year-old former dissident has used his five-year term to introduce key economic reforms. But recent scandals so tarred his administration that opposition Grand National Party candidate Lee Hoi Chang looked like a shoo-in as next President.

Now a dark horse has emerged from the ranks of Kim's Millennium Democratic Party. Roh Moo Hyun, 55, a left-leaning labor and human rights lawyer, has beaten all contenders in the MDP primaries ended Apr. 27. And he's leading Lee by 10 to 20 percentage points in the polls. As a result, in the December presidential election "Korean voters will have the widest choice ever," says Yoon Young O, dean of the Graduate School of Politics at Seoul's Kookmin University.

If Koreans do pick Roh, it will be a dramatic sign the country is ready for a much younger generation of leaders. Kim Dae Jung's departure ends the era of "three Kims"--the other two are former President Kim Young Sam and former Prime Minister Kim Jong Pil--who have dominated the Korean political scene for decades. Since he is 11 years younger than his opponent, Roh is a fresh face. "We need new politics," he says, pledging to shun the traditional top-down Presidential style. Instead, he promises "power-sharing" and "open-hearted, horizontal" leadership. If elected, he vows to break with the practice of having the President serve also as party chief--the chief power broker who chooses legislative candidates.

The election will also determine the pace of reform in South Korea, as well as its relations with North Korea. Roh supports Kim's "sunshine policy" of warming relations with North Korea through food aid and economic links. Expanding that policy could trigger tension with the U.S., which takes a tougher line. The conservative Lee's policy toward Pyongyang mirrors that of President George W. Bush's. Both oppose detente with the North until it shows progress on nuclear talks or pulls back troops from the demilitarized zone.

Roh's and Lee's policies toward the chaebol--the conglomerates that dominate Korea--also contrast sharply. Roh wants to break the family control of the giants once and for all by handing more power to minority shareholders and independent directors. Lee, an official in the government of former President Kim Young Sam, is backed by the chaebol. He would probably loosen the law so the chaebol could have greater control of banks--a move strongly opposed by Roh, who says he wants to distribute "the national wealth more equally." Roh, who worked in construction before teaching himself the law, aims for labor reforms such as a shorter workweek.

Perhaps most important, Roh seems bent on shaking up the status quo. Although he worked briefly as Maritime Affairs Minister for Kim Dae Jung and served 1 1/2 terms in the National Assembly, he is running as an outsider. In the primaries, he adroitly used the Internet to build support among under-30 voters. Millions of users logged onto his Web site to read about his anti-corruption campaign.

As the campaign revs up, Lee is sure to take aim at Roh's relative inexperience, while Roh will label Lee a symbol of the old order. One predictor of Roh's success nationally will be the outcome of local elections in June. In the race for Seoul mayor, Kim Min Seok, 38, a Roh ally and a former student activist, is running against Hyundai Construction ex-President Lee Myung Bak, 60. As young Korea asserts itself, Roh is ready to lead.

By Moon Ihlwan in Seoul and Mark L. Clifford in Hong Kong

Edited by Rose Brady

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE