S Korean voters set to reject president's party

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President Kim Young Sam of South Korea faced a serious political setback after yesterday's local elections, with polls suggesting that opposition parties had gained control of key areas of the country, including the capital, Seoul.

A survey by a national television station, MBC, predicted that in the race for mayor of Seoul, Chung Won Shik, a former prime minister and member of President Kim's Democratic Liberal Party (DLP), was expected to win little more than one-fifth of the vote to take a humiliating third place. A former deputy prime minister, Cho Soon, and member of the opposition Democratic Party (DP), was expected to win. In 14 other races to govern provinces and big cities, the DLP was set to win only four, including President Kim's home base, the southern port of Pusan.

Korean local officials have not been chosen democratically since 1960, and yesterday's elections represent a landmark both for national politics and for Mr Kim, who succeeded a run of unelected generals in 1992. Voter turn-out was 65 per cent, and the elections have been remarkably clean, the result of stringent electoral laws introduced by Mr Kim.

But despite these changes and a booming economy, President Kim's personal- approval rating has plummeted this year from a peak of 90 per cent to as little as 30 per cent. A series of fatal tragedies - the collapse of a car-laden bridge in Seoul and a gas explosion which killed dozens of schoolchildren in the city of Taegu - have aroused public anger. Internationally, Seoul has been repeatedly wrong-footed by the wily manoeuvrings of its neighbour and enemy, the communist North.

By withdrawing from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and playing on fears of a nascent weapons programme, North Korea has attempted to sideline Seoul in building relations with Japan and the United States. This month's agreement on supplying "safe" South Korean nuclear reactors to North Korea was brokered by an American team, and there is talk of a US representative office opening in Pyongyang as early as August.

Japan, too, is talking about renewed diplomatic relations and negotiating a shipment of rice to the hungry North. Seoul sent its own shipment this week, but dialogue between the two states remains frozen. There is a wide perception that President Kim has dithered over the problem, and that these matters were handled better by the generals who preceded him.