SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA
'The invincible D.J." might be a fitting title for Kim Dae Jung, South Korea's main opposition leader, perennial survivor, and lead man in Thursday's presidential election.
But party officials prefer to call him an ant. An ant, they explain, represents "diligence and honesty," the key to Mr. Kim's long political life as an outsider. He hopes to finally join the likes of Vaclav Havel, Corazon Aquino, and Nelson Mandela - former dissidents who became president. It is Kim's fourth try for the top job, and this time he might win.
That is unusual enough to make the voting notable. But the election, deemed to be South Korea's most democratic, also comes during an economic crisis.
In the past, ruling-party candidates were a shoe-in, assisted by a government-controlled media, business-funded political slush funds, and voters who preferred continuity.
Lee Hoi Chang was the ruling party's sure thing this year. "Mr. Clean," a former supreme court judge, starkly contrasted with President Kim Young Sam's scandal-ridden administration.
But accusations that Mr. Lee's two sons had lost weight to avoid mandatory military service destroyed his popularity. His eldest son went to an island leper colony to do penance.
Since the scandal, Kim has been leading in the polls. And he continues, even after several crises that could have easily sunk his election dreams.
First, a party adviser defected to North Korea, giving ammunition to conservatives who think Kim is a communist. But red-baiting was unsuccessful.
Then Kim was accused of having a multimillion-dollar slush fund - similar to ones that put two former presidents in jail last year. But a political cartoon summed up the public's reaction: "WOW!! But if he lost [in 1992], how big was Kim Young Sam's slush fund?" Public prosecutors did not investigate the allegations.
In order to appeal to conservatives, Kim joined hands with Kim Jong Pil - the former chief of a notorious intelligence agency that kidnapped him from a Tokyo hotel and almost threw him, tied to a boulder, off a boat in 1973. If Kim wins, the peaceful transfer of power to the opposition would solidify the 10-year-old democracy, observers say.
Trading on appearances
Ironically, a dark-horse candidate gained popularity because he reminded Koreans of former military dictator Park Chung Hee. Rhee In-Jae, a provincial governor, led the polls early for mimicking the dictator's decisive manner and hairdo. When he lost the ruling-party nomination he broke democratic principles and founded a new party of eight incumbent lawmakers, based on no ideology but his ambition to rule, critics say.
On the progressive side, enormous outdoor rallies have become extinct. Attended by paid participants and funded by businessmen anticipating favors, observers say, the outdoor rallies were at the heart of South Korea's crony capitalism. They have been replaced by live televised debates. Koreans can now evaluate candidates with a cool head in the comfort of their living rooms, with no interference from state-controlled media.
But few like what they see. Candidates inspire little confidence that they can handle today's economic crisis, and a quarter of voters are undecided. The Seoul daily Cho-Sun Ilbo wrote in an editorial yesterday, "If the candidates had shown a deep philosophy and detailed policy plans, people would have listened carefully, but instead they called up each others' weaknesses, real and imagined.... It reminded people of quarrels in the street."
In the days before the election, candidates are busily reworking their images. But diehard fans of the national soccer team complained when Lee and Kim used Red Devils imagery in campaign ads. When South Korea qualified for the World Cup, columnists suggested that the team's coach run for president.
Fighting rumors of poor health, Kim cakes on makeup and wears suspenders to appear youthful. Lee, who is perceived as being "icy," dyed his hair brown and started wearing colorful ties.
Rhee, apparently wanting to be seen as a man of the people, wears a working-class jumper instead of a suit. He even got rid of his Park Chung Hee haircut - after all, Park was a dictator.
The vote may be a horse race between Kim and Lee. Voters are forgetting the scandal involving Lee's sons and thinking about what his righthand man, a popular economist, can do for Korea.