South Korea: From World Cup Hero to President?

Soccer euphoria lingers on in South Korea, co-host of this year's World Cup. The country's team had the best showing by an Asian contender in the history of the championship, making it to the semifinals. But the World Cup's most important impact isn't on Korea's sports world--it's on the country's tumultuous politics. This is a presidential election year, and there may soon be a strong new candidate: Chung Mong Joon, president of the Korean Football Assn., who negotiated for Korea to be co-host and organized the games. Chung also hired Guus Hiddink, the Dutch coach who led the South Korean team on its successful run. To top it off, Chung, 50, is a member of the dynasty that founded the mighty Hyundai chaebol, and is personally worth $143 million.

Chung's adroit handling of the World Cup has suddenly given him the kind of national popularity necessary to make a serious presidential run. In the past month, his ratings in the opinion polls have more than doubled, to 24%. That puts him within range of ruling party candidate Roh Moo Hyun, who enjoys 26% support. Chung still trails opposition candidate Lee Hoi Chang by 15 points, but the election is five months away, and Chung has yet to declare his candidacy. "It's better to separate sports from politics," he recently told reporters. "I think I'll have to agonize for some time over my position." Aides to Chung, who has served in Parliament as an independent for 14 years, predict he will run. "It'll be too attractive an opportunity for him to pass," says one associate.

A Chung candidacy would make a wild presidential race--Asia's most important election this year--even wilder. Just three months ago, it seemed that Roh, a human rights lawyer, would waltz into the presidential Blue House and keep President Kim Dae Jung's Millennium Democratic Party in power. But Roh's candidacy suffered when Kim's two sons were arrested for influence-peddling. Sick of corruption in politics, Koreans punished the Millennium Democrats in June local elections, handing 11 of 16 mayorships and governorships to the opposition Grand National Party. That spurred a dozen members of Roh's party to demand he be replaced as candidate--and several named Chung as their favorite.

It may seem ironic that Kim's party would consider drafting Chung, the ex-boss of Hyundai Heavy Industries Co. Kim, after all, spent his presidency battling to reduce the chaebols' influence. But Chung ran a scandal-free World Cup, and Hyundai cooperated with Kim's government by breaking its group into three separate entities. Aides say that Chung, as president, might loosen some restrictions on big companies--such as the current limits to cross-shareholdings. But Chung backs Kim's Sunshine Policy toward North Korea, which advocates a conciliatory approach to the Stalinist regime.

A key decision time will come after by-elections for 13 parliamentary seats on Aug. 8. Roh has promised to review his candidacy after the vote, seen as a barometer for the presidential ballot. Yet any draft-Chung movement must be handled carefully. The Millennium Democrats chose Roh after Korea's first-ever primary, which was held up as a key reform. "If Roh is dumped after such a process, the party's credibility will be seriously damaged," says Lim Seong Ho, a political scientist at Kyunghee University. So if the ruling camp wants Chung, it will likely have to disband the party, organize a new one, and launch a fresh campaign. Chung, who oversaw a sports miracle for Koreans, now needs the voters to help him score a different kind of last-minute goal.

By Moon Ihlwan in Seoul

Edited by Rose Brady

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