Tough Fight in South Korea

The race to succeed Kim Dae Jung as President of South Korea has taken another dramatic turn. Just three months ago, Roh Moo Hyun, 55, was far ahead in the polls after Kim's Millennium Democratic Party chose him as its candidate. Roh, a human rights lawyer, was seen as a fresh face by voters. But now, Lee Hoi Chang, the 66-year-old candidate of the Grand National Party, has made a comeback.

His party is set to take control of most major cities and provinces on July 1 after a landslide victory in June 13 local elections, winning 11 of 16 key mayorships and governorships. That election is seen as a barometer for the December presidential ballot. Polls held since the local elections show Lee leading Roh by as much as 15 points.

Lee's conservative opposition party won big in the local elections after attacking recent corruption scandals involving Kim's sons, his aides, and appointees. Analysts say voters are disappointed at Kim's failure to clean up the graft-tainted political system, even though he rescued the country from bankruptcy in the 1997-1998 Asian crisis. Roh also hurt his image when he sought help from Kim Young Sam, part of the Old Guard of Korean politics. "Unless Lee makes a catastrophic blunder or the ruling party pulls off a dramatic surprise, Lee appears set to walk into the [presidential] Blue House," says Shin Jung Hyun, a political science professor at Seoul's Kyunghee University. The next test of the candidates comes in August by-elections, when a dozen parliamentary seats will be at stake.

By Moon Ihlwan in Seoul

Edited by Rose Brady

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