High stakes in Korean grudge match

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"Congratulations!" said the student in the tracksuit, when I told him that I was reporting on South Korean politics. "This hasn't happened for years - you must be very happy." A few moments earlier, it should be explained, I had been doubled up on a Seoul pavement, coughing up phlegm into a wad of crumpled tissues. My throat was burning, my nose was running, and my tear gas-filled eyes felt as if they were liquefying on to my cheeks. "There hasn't been a riot like this since the 1980s," my new friend assured me,genuinely happy on my behalf. "And you caught it - that's... that's great."

Welcome to Seoul, and the 15th National Assembly elections of the Republic of Korea. A fortnight ago, when the campaign kicked off, it could hardly have been less promising, an uninspiring grudge match between three parties with identical policies and identically named leaders - Mr Kim, Mr Kim, and President Kim. Today, as voters go to the polls to elect their 299 National Assembly men, this is still going to be an election in which the conventional staples of democratic politics - ideological difference, policy debate - play little part. But what it lacks in substance it has made up for with the greatest quality of Korean politics - a sense of occasion.

Credit for this belongs to two groups which, in the last few days, have made a dramatic re-emergence into the political mainstream. The first is the students who, until a few years ago, were a significant political force in their own right. In 1987, a sequence of huge rallies, frequently ending in violent battles with riot police, played a large part in persuading the then president, Chun Doo Hwan, to give in to popular pressure for democratic elections.

But since 1993, when the former dissident Kim Young Sam became president, many of their grievances have been addressed. Chun Doo Hwan is in prison, along with his successor, Roh Tae Woo, charged with bribery and with ordering a massacre of student protesters in 1980. A fortnight ago, however, on a demonstration against an increase in university tuition fees, a 20-year- old undergraduate died of a heart attack after a beating from the police. His funeral procession yesterday attracted 7,000 marchers who snaked through the city all day, blocking traffic, chanting anti-government slogans, and exchanging tear gas and eggs with the riot police.

How much impact this will have on the elections is hard to gauge, although for President Kim, the sight of thousands of youths chanting for his downfall cannot have been reassuring. What he loses to the students, however, he may gain from the intervention of another perennial force in South Korean politics: North Korea. Last weekend, after renouncing its responsibilities in the armistice which ended the Korean War in 1953, the People's Army made three miniature sorties into its side of the supposedly demilitarised zone which separates the enemy states. Similar hi-jinks have gone on intermittently for years, provoking no more than average alarm.

But this week, the president and his ministers have talked of little else - mindful, no doubt, of cautiousolder voters whose memories of the Korean War may induce them to opt for caution rather than change.

President Kim's New Korea Party (NKP) will need all the help it can muster. By most reckonings, it stands to lose its present majority, to retain between 100 and 130 of the 299 seats. The principal benefactor will be the second of the three Kims - Kim Dae Jung, another former dissident and the president's one-time ally, whose National Congress for New Politics (NCNP) is running roughly neck and neck with the NKP. If the NKP can edge ahead, then it stands a chance of cobbling together a majority with the help of a handful of independents - although this would be a humiliating blow to the intensely proud president.

If not, they will be forced into an alliance with Kim Number Three - the leader of the United Liberal Democrats (ULD), Kim Jong Pil. At this point the contest would start to get interesting, and the true significance of the election would be revealed - a contest marginally important in itself, except as a prologue to the great struggle, the battle for the presidency.

Apart from holding up budgets and legislation, the power of the National Assembly pales in comparison with that of the president. Kim Young Sam's single five-year term will come to an end in 1998. Elections will be held in December next year and both his rival Kims are in the running.

Although Kim Young Sam cannot stand for re-election he is desperate to pass on his office to a political sympathiser, and for more than the usual reasons. As the first modern president without a military background, he cherishes an image of himself as the father of his country's democracy. His place in history could easily be threatened if one of his former adversaries among the Kims was to take his place. If the ULD is required to come on board to bail out the NKP, however, Kim Jong Pil has made it clear that he will do so only in return for an endorsement in the presidential elections, jumping the queue of younger NKP loyalists which Kim Young Sam has lined up.In that case, the President will be left with a choice - either muddle along in the National Assembly without a majority, or yield his place in history to an old rival.

Letters, page 18