The ensuing scandal, which may play a large role in deciding how people vote today, shows just how far democracy has come in the five years since military rule was ended in South Korea.
Kim Young Sam is engaged in a close race for the presidency with two other candidates: Kim Dae Jung of the opposition Democratic Party (DP), and Chung Ju Yung, the business magnate who this year formed his own party, the United People's Party (UPP). In Asian terms it is a remarkable fact in itself that on the eve of the elections no one can predict who will win.
The incident that sparked the scandal happened last Friday in Pusan, a port city on the south coast that is South Korea's second largest urban centre after Seoul. The Mayor of Pusan, Kim Young Hwan, held a secret breakfast meeting with the local heads of the police, the security agency and the defence command to discuss ways of boosting Kim Young Sam's presidential campaign.
Compared to the wholesale buying of votes, stuffing of ballot boxes and physical intimidation of candidates that is common practice in other Asian countries, the Pusan officials' agenda was relatively mild: they talked about how to play on provincial sympathies of the voters by highlighting the fact that Mr Kim is a native of Pusan, and also considered bribing local journalists to write favourable articles about him. Government officials are banned by law from interfering in election campaigns.
Mr Chung's UPP managed to get a tape-recording of this meeting, which they duly produced at a press conference on Tuesday morning, much to the embarrassment of the DLP. By Tuesday evening, on direct orders from President Roh Tae Woo, the Mayor of Pusan and the three local security chiefs had been fired, three separate investigations into the incident had been ordered, and Mr Kim Young Sam was forced to apologise to the voters for the transgression.
Just five years ago such an incident would never have become such a big issue. First, the press would not have dared report it. Second, the government would have fudged the affair and the officials responsible would not have lost their jobs. Third, the public would not have regarded it as reprehensible anyway, but as the normal functioning of an authoritarian regime.
But since 1987, when President Roh Tae Woo was elected and military rule ended, South Korea has undergone a remarkable change to embrace political pluralism and accountability of government officials. 'Korean politicians now have to show results and substantive improvements,' said Kim Dal Choong, the dean of international studies at Yonsei University. 'The conservatives miss authoritarian leadership very much, but Korea has passed that stage - definitively.' This is in stark contrast to neighbouring Japan, where one party has monopolised power since 1955.
Much of the credit for the new openness must go to President Roh, who has skilfully interpreted the people's demand for democracy while at the same time neutralising the threat from Communist North Korea that had served as the main justification for military authoritarianism in the past. Today South Korea has a free press, a well-educated and increasingly affluent middle class, students who study to improve their job prospects rather than confront the tear-gas of the riot police, and a military which, at least for the time being, stays in its barracks. None of the three leading presidential candidates have military backgrounds, and the dominant issue in the campaign is the economy, which is languishing - in Korean terms - at an annual growth rate of 5 per cent.
There are serious challenges ahead. The huge chaebol, or conglomerates, which have driven Korea's economic growth up to now, need to specialise and move into higher technology areas as rising wages have made simple manufacturing no longer profitable.
Most uncertain is the future of North Korea, which has backed away from the reunification process and may either collapse in on itself or attempt a last-gasp military venture against the South. Either way the eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula will produce turmoil which might cause the conservative military to reassert itself.
But for the time being voters have lost interest in reunification, largely because the German experience has shown how expensive it will be. And the government no longer has to look over its shoulder to the North all the time.Reuse content