The race to succeed Kim Dae Jung as President of South Korea might go right down to the wire. The Sept. 17 announcement by Chung Mong Joon, president of the Korean Football Assn., that he will run in the Dec. 19 election is adding new drama to the campaign. Chung, 50, is building on popularity gained in June when Seoul co-hosted the World Cup, which he helped organize. Recent opinion polls show Chung running neck-and-neck with opposition candidate Lee Hoi Chang. And Chung is some 10 percentage points ahead of ruling party candidate Roh Moo Hyun. That's remarkable for a four-term independent legislator who has achieved little in reshaping the country's political agenda.
In fact, Chung's biggest advantage is that he is regarded as a new face on the national level, untainted by the corruption and regional rivalry that have characterized South Korea's political system. But many analysts think Chung will face an uphill battle against Lee as campaigning heats up. Voters may view Chung as too close to the conglomerates dominating Korea's economy. He is the son of the late founder of Hyundai Group, once the country's largest chaebol, and is a major shareholder of Hyundai Heavy Industries Co., the world's largest shipbuilder.
Chung could pull off a victory, analysts say, if Roh drops out of the race and supports him. Both Roh and Chung back Kim's policy of engagement with North Korea--in contrast to the conservative Lee, who maintains a tougher position on Pyongyang.
By Moon Ihlwan in Seoul
Edited by Rose Brady