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Election shock for Korean opposition

The ruling party of President Kim Young Sam staged a surprising recovery in elections to the South Korean National Assembly yesterday, thus jeopardising the hopes of the country's most prominent opposition leader. As the results emerged, an angry North Korea issued dire new threats of war.

Pollsters and even party members had predicted that the president's New Korea Party (NKP) would lose its majority in the 299-seat parliament where it holds 150 seats. But early returns indicated a final showing of close to 140 - enough, with the support of unaffiliated independents, to maintain overall control.

The leading opposition party, the National Congress for New Politics (NCNP), led by the veteran dissident Kim Dae Jung, made far fewer gains than anticipated, while the United Liberal Democrats led by Kim Jong Pil, who served under Korea's military dictators, increased its showing.

The most important factor influencing voters was probably the tense situation on the border, where North Korean troops staged small-scale incursions of the demilitarised zone last weekend, after renouncing the 43-year-old armistice which brought peace to the peninsula after the Korean War.

Apart from increasing surveillance of the North, the American-led United Nations command took a cool view of the incursions, which appeared to be little more than acts of bellicose showmanship designed to pressure the US into direct talks with Pyongyang. In Seoul, however, they provoked alarm, which the government did nothing to discourage. This appears to have persuaded large numbers of undecided voters to opt for caution rather than change, to the benefit of the ruling party.

"The results reflect a public aspiration for stability and are a strong popular endorsement for President Kim," said a spokesman for the ruling party. "The incidents in the demilitarised zone strengthened people's belief that a strong mandate for the president and his ruling party is essential to national security."

The irony of all this - a near-victory for the government courtesy of its deadliest adversary - was lost on Pyongyang. Even as the votes for the NKP mounted, the official North Korean media yesterday issued the latest in a series of blood-curdling statements, denouncing the South for unspecified acts of military intimidation. "If the South Korean puppets dare provoke war against us like a new-born puppy knowing no fear of a tiger," the Rodong Sinmun newspaper commented, "we will deal a heavy blow to the provokers and punish their crimes a thousand-fold."

Reflecting ruefully on all this will be the NCNP leader, Kim Dae Jung. A one time friend of President Kim, in their days as pro-democracy dissidents under the military dictatorship, he has three times stood for the presidency and lost. His last chance would have been in next year's presidential elections, and so confident was he of success in yesterday's poll that he placed himself 14th on a list of party nominees for seats allotted by proportional representation. But the NCNP was last night set to win little more than 75 seats, leaving Kim a good chance of losing his assembly seat.

The scene is now set for President Kim to appoint his own successor as president, and continue his reforms of the stock exchange and bureaucracy.