Korea’s Political Outlook

January 19, 2003

Setback, Surprise and Upset

On December 19, 2002, after months of a tumultuous campaign punctuated by drama and suspense, Mr. Roh Moo Hyun, the Millennium Democratic Party candidate, emerged as the victor with 48.9% of the total of 12 million votes. The 70% voter turnout was the lowest since 1987, but Mr. Roh’s election was closer to a majority than any of his three predecessors, none of whom were able to win more than 40% of the total votes.

What was remarkable throughout the campaign was Mr. Roh’s ability and good fortune in overcoming numerous surprises and setbacks, including his party’s defeat in both the June local government elections and August vacancy elections; corruption scandals implicating President Kim Dae-Jung’s son and members of his inner circle, which eroded his party’s popularity; unexpectedly strong support for the Democratic Labor Party candidate; and a very last-minute defection by Mr. Chung Mong-Joon, whose earlier show of support was credited with endowing Mr. Roh’s campaign with a surge of popularity that allowed him to catch up to and surpass Mr. Lee Hoi-Chang, the Grand National Party candidate who enjoyed a comfortable lead in the polls up to a month prior to election day.

Another noteworthy aspect of this election was that the surprise admission by North Korea of its enriched uranium-based nuclear weapons program, and the ensuing fear of renewed tensions in the Korean peninsula, had no effect on the outcome of the election, despite the fact that the admission was made in October, less than two months before election day. This defied the trend of past campaigns when concerns for national security of that magnitude consistently helped garnered more support for the conservative candidate.

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