Dictator's daughter leads S Korea polls

Tue, Dec 18, 2012, 00:00

Sluggish economic growth is dominating presidential elections in South Korea today, with polls showing conservative candidate Park Geun-hye marginally ahead of left-wing challenger Moon Jae-in.

Polls by Realmeter showed Ms Park, of the ruling Saenuri Party, scoring 48 per cent while Mr Moon, of the main opposition Democratic United Party, was on 47.5 per cent, putting the two candidates neck and neck given the margin of error.

Ms Park is the daughter of the late military-backed dictator Park Chung-Hee who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1961-79. Her mother, Yuk Young-soo, was killed by North Korean assassins, who tried twice to kill her father before he was shot dead by his spy chief in 1979.

In the aftermath of the Korean War (1950-1953), South Korea was one of the world’s poorest states, but these days the country of 50 million people is Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

While the economy is strong, growth is flagging on the back of European and Chinese sluggishness and a delayed recovery in the US. The IMF forecasts 3 per cent growth this year, down from an earlier projection of 3.25 per cent, and unemployment is on the rise.

Current president Lee Myung-bak, also from the Saenuri Party, is constitutionally barred from serving another five-year term.

The two Koreas are bitter rival and have been technically at war since a ceasefire ended hostilities in the Korean War, but the North’s nuclear weapons programme, and regular skirmishes, mean tensions remain high.

Opinion polls show the economy is a more important election issue than a surprise rocket launch last week by the North.

Jobs package

A poll by broadcaster SBS showed that just 4.2 per cent of respondents saw the launch, which is aimed at developing a long-range missile that can carry a nuclear warhead, as an issue in the elections.

A separate poll by the Asan Institute think tank showed that 44.8 per cent of South Koreans felt Ms Park was best placed to deal with the North.

In a bid to narrow the gap, Mr Moon announced a 20 trillion won (€14 billion) jobs package last week.

“Growth, welfare, economic democracy all start from jobs and are for the sake of jobs,” Mr Moon said after announcing the plan, which will raise the minimum wage and halve the number of temporary workers in the private sector.

Raising the country’s low birthrate is also a hot issue in the campaign.

While Ms Park’s father is credited with transforming the war-ravaged country into one of the world’s richest countries, her father is hated by many in Korea for his human rights abuses. She has apologised for these, and has sought to look ahead rather than backwards at his controversial rule.

“The upcoming presidential election is very important. Please vote for the future and your life rather than the failed past,” she said.

“If I become president, I will make promises with people and will change the era beyond the change of government.”

The election will be closely watched to see what impact last weekend’s massive swing to the right in Japanese elections will have on South Korea, a regional rival also struggling to deal with China’s ascendancy in northern Asia.

The election campaign has been characterised by serious mudslinging. Both parties have alleged illicit campaigning, with the DUP saying the country used the intelligence services to intervene by posting slanderous comments against Mr Moon online. Ms Park’s party has accused the opposition of running an unauthorised campaign office.