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N. Korea's War Threats May Alter South's Election Results

DRAMATIC results might have been expected from South Korea's first parliamentary elections since the end of military dictatorship.

In the days before the April 11 vote, North Korea threatened war, student protests and police teargas filled many streets, and a chief aide to President Kim Young Sam was charged with bribery.

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Instead, the vote count for the 299-seat National Assembly might leave a muddle, with the Mr. Kim's ruling New Korea Party losing its 150-seat majority and forced into an awkward coalition many analysts say. Such a result would dampening his chances for reelection in 1997.

With citizens having little or no history of democratic institutions or debate, voters are having a hard time making up their minds about candidates.

With no passionate issues like democracy and freedom to fight for anymore, voters are expected to choose candidates based on the strong regionalism that has long dominated South Korean politics.

In 1987, on the eve of Seoul hosting the 1988 Summer Olympics, South Koreans flooded the streets, demanding democracy after decades of military rule. With civilian rule now in place, "parties are losing their issues," says Cho Ki-sook, professor of political science at Inchon University.

Most candidates make generic promises, such as developing the economy, holding down inflation, improving education, and protecting the environment.

And because there are few ideological differences among the major parties, "voters are very cynical and alienated," Professor Cho explains. Voters' apathy may lead them to vote for personalities - many movie stars are running - and the candidates' regional background.

Opposition politicians bemoan the possible boost the ruling party may receive by North Korea's provocative military incursions into the demilitarized zone. Last weekend's forays have led to national security suddenly emerging as an issue, with the ruling party making appeals for national unity in the face of adversity.

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Yoo Chong-keun, governor of North Cholla Province and a member of the leading opposition party, the National Congress for New Politics, says that as Koreans have never experienced a change from the ruling party to the opposition, they can't know what that would mean for people's lives, so voters stick by region.

Cho says that "even if voters are interested in difficult issues, they aren't using these issues as a guideline."

What has emerged as the top issue is corruption.

Kim's party had a chance to get votes for its political reforms, anticorruption drive, and the jailing of two former presidents on treason and corruption charges. But as the arrests smacked of political retribution, and especially since Kim's personal secretary for nearly 20 years was charged with accepting $848,000 in bribes, it will be hard for the ruling party to be credible in their anticorruption claims.

With the vacuum of substance, politicians have takes to mudslinging to outline their differences. Candidates have accused each other of holding secret money and dubious real estate.

It is an old practice for candidates to pass out envelopes containing between $15 and $20. One candidate threw $2,500 in the air in small notes at the end of a rally, sending the crowd scrambling.

But there's been more attention given to cracking down on these practices. As of April 8, 156 candidates had been charged with illegal campaign activities, reported the Korea Times.

Citizens' groups and labor unions, organizations that might give citizens guidance or generate greater involvement in politics, are legally banned from endorsing politicians.

Citizens' groups are highly respected as watchdogs on democracy. Their banning is a holdover from the old days when ruling dictatorships snuffed opposition. Today's government says they wouldn't give objective opinions to people.

While this may seem undemocratic, one observer pointed out that the restrictions, particularly on unions, may actually free people to vote as individuals. In Korea's group-oriented culture, belonging to a union, like belonging to families, can have tacit but binding obligations. So the logic goes, voting against the union line could cost one one's job.

Voters will directly elect 253 of the 299 legislators, with the rest being split proportionally according to how many seats a party has won.

As in past electoral contests, Kim Young Sam's party is facing off against the party of his long-time rival and former fellow dissident, Kim Dae Jung of the National Congress for New Politics. The two parties are unlikely to form a coalition.

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