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Gloves come off in South Korea election

SOUTH KOREA has launched into a headlong, no-holds-barred political punch-up as three main candidates vie for the presidency in next week's elections.

What had seemed several months ago to be a simple stroll into the presidential Blue House for the ruling party's candidate, Kim Young Sam, has now turned into a desperate three-way race that is still wide open. The man who has brought this about is Chung Ju Yung, a business magnate who is running a Ross Perot-style no-nonsense campaign that has taken the ruling party by surprise.

The elections on 18 December are particularly important for South Korea. Not only will the winner be the first civilian president to rule the country after a series of generals but he will have to preside over a restructuring of the Korean economy. This is limping along at a mere 3 per cent growth rate - up to now Koreans have been used to double-digit growth. Most importantly, during his five-year tenure the president will probably be faced with the prospect of total economic collapse in Communist North Korea, with all the perils and opportunities that will entail.

Mr Kim's advisers had until recently dismissed Mr Chung, the 77-year-old founder of the nation's second largest conglomerate, Hyundai, as a passing fad. They thought he would not attract voters, and that Mr Kim could then easily defeat the other main candidate, Kim Dae Jung. But it is now possible that Mr Chung will take away enough of Kim Young Sam's votes to allow the veteran opposition leader, Kim Dae Jung, finally to realise his dream of the presidency.

The well-funded and highly mobile Mr Chung - he campaigns across the country 10 hours a day in his private helicopter - has taken everyone by surprise with his surge in support. He has pledged to halve the cost of housing, treble South Korea's per capita GNP in five years, and reduce inflation from 10 per cent to 3 per cent. How he would achieve this remains vague, but the message is more appealing than Kim Young Sam's abstract promises of political and economic reform.

As opinion polls showed Mr Chung's popularity increasing, the government launched a full-scale tax investigation into his Hyundai group last Friday. There have been allegations that the group is funnelling large amounts of money into Mr Chung's presidential campaign, and that Hyundai staff are being ordered to canvass for their boss. Hyundai executives have been called in for questioning, causing the group to threaten to shut down all its operations if the official harassment does not stop.

Meanwhile Mr Chung's party, the United People's Party, is hitting back with allegations of money politics against Kim Young Sam. Yesterday they produced initialled wrist watches and men's underwear that they say are being handed out by the ruling party to voters.