Radical leftist next Korean leader

PRESIDENT-ELECT: Roh Moo-hyun wants a more equal relationship with the US and more dialogue with North Korea; he also thinks `Japanese militarism' is a threat


Fri, Dec 20, 2002 - Page 1

Pro-government candidate Roh Moo-hyun declared victory in South Korea's presidential election yesterday, saying he would work for a "new era of dialogue and harmony."

Roh's campaign rival, opposition leader Lee Hoi-chang, conceded defeat. With 85.9 percent of the vote counted, Roh had an insurmountable lead of 2.3 percent, television stations said.

A Roh presidency could affect relations with the US, a chief ally, and North Korea. Roh has said he wants a more "equal" relationship with Washington, and advocates dialogue with his communist neighbor.

"Thank you my dear fellow countrymen, who have elected me as president," Roh said in a speech at his party headquarters. His supporters clapped and cheered, and some danced with balloons in the street.

"I will try to open a new era of dialogue and harmony," Roh said in an overture to the opposition.

"I will try to become a president, not just for the people who supported me, but also for the people who opposed me in the election," said a joyful Roh, who appeared to be on the verge of tears.

Turnout among the 35 million eligible voters was 70.2 percent, 10.5 percent lower than in the 1997 presidential election.

The vote took place amid a surge in anti-US sentiment, fueled by the recent acquittals in US military trials of two American soldiers whose armored vehicle hit and killed two South Korean teenage girls in June in a road accident. South Korea's relations with its top ally have emerged as a key election issue.

Roh supports President Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine" policy of engaging North Korea, and believes dialogue is the best way to resolve concerns over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. But Lee, 67, had said Kim's policy was a failure, and preferred a tougher approach more in line with that of US President George W. Bush.

Kim's five-year term ends in February. Under South Korean law, he is barred from seeking re-election.

Many South Koreans believe Bush, who has ruled out talks with Pyongyang unless it abandons its nuclear development, is an obstacle to reconciliation with North Korea. Roh, who wants South Korea to be less dependent on Washington, benefited from growing unhappiness with the 37,000 US soldiers stationed in the South.

"Bush is a trigger-happy man," said Kim Han-sik, a 32-year-old voter. "We need a leader who can say no when we think we should say no. Our country has been too subservient to the United States."

Roh's campaign had appeared in peril when a key backer and coalition partner withdrew his support late Wednesday.

Chung Mong-joon, the popular architect of South Korea's successful co-hosting of the soccer World Cup this year, said he was upset over a comment Roh made Wednesday.

"If the United States and North Korea start a fight, we should dissuade them," 55-year-old Roh had said.

Chung, a former presidential candidate who dropped out of the race to support Roh, said the United States was a close South Korean ally and had no reason to start a fight with North Korea.

But local media, citing Chung officials, said the soccer chief was angry after Roh indicated he would not back Chung for the presidency in 2007. Chung had counted on Roh's backing.

In recent weeks, tens of thousands of young South Koreans have taken to the streets to protest the acquittals of the US soldiers and demand more South Korean jurisdiction over US troops in their country.

The soldiers were acquitted of negligent homicide charges, but many South Koreans believed the trial was unfair. US military officials apologized repeatedly for the deaths.

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A radical takes over the Blue House in Seoul