Korea's Poll: Michael Jackson gets recruited to boost election campaign in crisis

A long-time dissident is likely to be the winner of today's election. But the election is being fought on personalities, not issues. Richard Lloyd Parry reports.

South Korea's presidential elections were defined, in all their gravity and absurdity, by a surreal encounter last weekend. The occasion was an international video conference organised by Kim Dae Jung, considered most likely to be chosen today as the country's new leader.

As an aspirant president, Mr Kim is naturally concerned about the economic crisis which has beset his country; to address the issue he brought together some of the world's most brilliant men for a meeting of minds. There was the financier George Soros. Then there was Mickey Kantor, a former US trade negotiator. But these were mere warm-up acts for the guest of honour, the man chosen to offer the concluding words of advice on Korea's future direction - Michael Jackson, the moon-walking American pop star.

Nothing could better sum up the atmosphere of the Korean elections than the pairing of George Soros and Michael Jackson. On the one hand, Koreans are voting today in an atmosphere of economic crisis, in which financial melt-down has been averted only by a humiliating appeal to the International Monetary Fund.

But despite the huge stakes, this has been an election campaign without issues, fought as a battle between personalities with a level of debate about as deep as a Michael Jackson lyric.

Throughout the campaign, high political drama has been overlaid with cynicism so daring as to border on farce. Since early this year, the incumbent, Kim Young Sam, the country's first wholly civilian president, has been a joke leader, hobbled by family scandals and the failure of his economic policies. Almost the only consistent policy pursued by candidates has been a desire to put distance between themselves and him.

When the third-ranking candidate, Rhee In Je, was reported to have the leader's secret support, it almost scuppered his campaign. The President's chosen successor, Lee Hoi Chang, was so embarrassed by the connection that he changed the name of his party from New Korea Party to Grand National Party - although the party's offices, personnel and organisation remain the same. But the most remarkable act of political opportunism has been perpetrated by Kim Dae Jung, a former dissident and political prisoner who escaped assassination in 1973 at the hands of the Korean CIA (KCIA).

Mr Kim has lost three presidential elections, a victim of regionalism which guarantees his support in his home region of Cholla, but makes it difficult to win support elsewhere. So he has joined hands with another veteran Kim - Kim Jong Pil, the ultra-conservative founder of the KCIA and his long-time tormentor and nemesis. Publication of opinion polls was banned three weeks ago and, although the last ratings had Kim Dae Jung a few points ahead, Mr Lee was catching up.

A Kim Dae Jung victory would be historic in that no opposition party has taken power in Korea. On the other hand, at the age of 72, he is the representative of a political generation which many would be glad to have put out to grass.

Mr Lee has a bracing reputation for rectitude and incorruptibility - but as leader of the establishment party, he may not be up to the task of taking on the country's vested interests. In public, the candidates have said little to distinguish them apart, except for last week, when Mr Rhee and Kim Dae Jung briefly flirted with the idea of renegotiating the IMF deal. Their much-hyped television debates have produced little more than personal abuse.

Who will win today's election is difficult to say. Perhaps the more important question is whether it matters either way.

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