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Old Trick in S. Korea: Paint Opposition Red

On the Korean Peninsula, where the cold war lives on, red baiting and McCarthyism are still the rage.

After all, it's been the silver bullet for winning elections in South Korea for decades, the opposition says, costing their leader - Kim Dae Jung - the presidency three times.

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In past elections, the ruling party has always insinuated that Mr. Kim was pro-North, circulating leaflets with a photograph of him standing near a North Korean flag. It also alleged he encouraged South Koreans to illegally visit North Korea, a practice forbidden by the Seoul government. And just before the 1992 election, the government busted a North Korean spy ring with alleged links to Kim.

This year looked to be different. Boasting an early lead in the polls for his fourth bid, Kim's prospects looked rosy. Then on Aug. 15, one of his party's advisers, a top religious leader, defected to North Korea.

In Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, Oh Ik-jae issued a statement saying he was disillusioned with Seoul's unification policies and wasn't coming back.

In Seoul, the ruling party seized the opportunity to paint Kim and his party as communists. Party spokesmen once again raised questions about Kim's ideology and publicized cellular phone records showing that before Mr. Oh defected he made more than 20 phone calls to Kim's office. Building on that momentum, the ruling party then claimed that Kim had fought for North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War, was caught, and narrowly escaped execution on a US Navy ship - a claim the United States Embassy denies.

Although this is par for the course in South Korean elections, opposition lawmakers have an extra worry this year: the "Hwang Jang Yop List." When Mr. Hwang, the seniormost North Korean official to defect from Pyongyang, arrived in Seoul this spring, he was rumored to be carrying a list of South Koreans spying for the North. The opposition fears that instead of quietly investigating suspected spies, the ruling party would use the list to further paint the opposition red.

"We don't have any ideological problems with our leader. But the [ruling party] still plays slander games at every election," says Cho Se-hyung, an opposition lawmaker. Claims that Kim is affiliated with communist organizations are "groundless nonsense," he says.

Last week, opposition spokesman Chong Dong-young went on the offensive, saying that Seoul's intelligence body, the National Security Planning Agency (NSP), "willfully neglected" Oh, allowing him to defect even though he was under investigation and thus giving political ammunition to the ruling party.

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But for it's part, the NSP appears to be the most reasonable party. They deny Hwang's List exists, and say that any official announcements about spy investigations will be postponed until after elections this December to avoid negative political impact.

"Everybody has been using this putative 'Hwang Jang Yop List' from the beginning except for the NSP," says a Western diplomat here.

In any case, the ruling party has extra incentive to paint the opposition red this year. The approval ratings of its presidential candidate, Lee Hoi-chang, have plunged after it came to light that his sons were exempted from military duty for being underweight.

Meanwhile, newspapers are denouncing the red-baiting, saying that Oh's defection is an issue of national security, not politics. They also point out the irony that Oh served under President Kim Young Sam on the "Peaceful Unification Council," a government endorsed group of prestigious people who meet infrequently to talk about reunifying the split Korean peninsula.

Compared with the past, this instance of an apparent link is "less effective [at swaying votes,] equally unproductive, and the same in content," says a long-time foreign resident.

"Rather than slander each other" the government should investigate why Oh went to North Korea and why they couldn't prevent it, says Mr. Cho, the opposition lawmaker.

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