South Koreans go to polls amid mounting tension

 

SOUTH KOREANS go to the polls to elect a new parliament today amid mounting border tension with North Korea. The press predicted the ruling party would lose its parliamentary majority.

Ruling party seen losing its "majority" the Korea Herald said in an early edition, predicting that the New Korea Party (NKP) of President Kim Young Sam would win only 110 of the 253 directly elected seats. The remaining 46 seats in the 299 seat parliament area allocated to parties on a proportional basis.

The polls opened at 6 a.m. (8 p.m. Wednesday Irish time) nationally and were scheduled to close 12 hours later.

Unless the ruling party manages to win over independents, the Herald said, three opposition parties could together control the National Assembly. They are the main opposition National Congress for New Politics (NCNP), led by a former dissident Mr Kim Dae Jung, the conservative United Liberal Democrats, led by Ia former Korean Central Intelligence Agency chief, Mr Kim Jong il, and the small Democratic Party, led by Mr Lee Ki Taek.

Some 31 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots countrywide, with most active military soldiers having already cast absentee ballots.

A Defence Ministry official in Seoul, referring to recent Communist troop incursions, compared the situation to the dark days of the Cold War 20 years ago.

The Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Vitaly Ignatenko, arrived in Pyongyang to try to defuse the heightened tensions. His visit coincided with a fresh warning from UN aid officials of a worsening food shortage in the impoverished North.

In Tokyo, a visiting North Korean delegation made an urgent appeal to Japan for a third emergency consignment of rice to help it cope with the disastrous short fall caused by the floods which destroyed last year's grain crop.

Rhetoric between the two Koreas has increased since Pyongyang signalled its contempt for a truce that ended the 1950-53 Korean War by sending heavily farmed troops into the Panmunjom border crossing area.

Three incursions into a neutral buffer zone starting last Friday are seen as scare tactics to persuade Washington to sign a bilateral peace treaty, shutting out Seoul.

"There's great potential of North Korea escalating provocations," the Assistant Defence Minister, Mr Park Yong-ok, told a news conference yesterday. "North Korea's top leaders have repeatedly said war is inevitable.

Thousands of marching students denounced the government after the long delayed funeral in Seoul of a colleague who died in a protest.