Show-biz replaces politics in Korean elections: With no burning issues, candidates are obsessed with image, writes Terry McCarthy in Seoul

IF IT had not been for the thousands of flags of Kim Young Sam, a presidential candidate, waving in the crowd, the scene could have been an open-air variety show. A string of singers, actresses and television personalities came up on to the stage to entertain the tens of thousands who had turned out for a last-minute rally in the south-eastern city of Ulsan before tomorrow's presidential elections in South Korea. The crowd was enjoying the show so much that the arrival of Mr Kim seemed, if anything, an anticlimax.

Hyun Chol, a popular singer in his 40s wearing a green suit, a pea-green shirt, a broad tie with a vertical piano keyboard design and buffed-up hair, set the crowd alight with some tasteful crooning. He then went down on his knees and bowed with his forehead to the ground to request humbly votes for candidate Kim.

Another group of singers came on stage, rousing the crowd to a frenzy as Mr Kim's helicopter appeared over the hills and circled the stage before landing on a purple smoke canister in a nearby field. A vanguard of grey-clad cheerleaders came jogging in formation through the crowd and, as the music reached a climax, the singers on stage turned in unison to point at the poster of Mr Kim behind them.

To cap all this, Kim Young Sam would have had to burst through the poster and land on stage in a Superman suit. In fact the candidate of the ruling Democratic Liberal Party (DLP) arrived on an open-topped bus. Short of build and not renowned for his oratory, Mr Kim made an average speech which saw the fringes of the crowd starting to peel away before he had finished.

But the fanfare was all. Tomorrow's elections are set to be South Korea's closest contest ever for the presidency. Yesterday's newspapers carried polls showing 30 per cent of voters were still undecided, and although polls on actual voting preferences are against the law, the candidates' advisers themselves admit the vote is going to be tight. With few concrete policy differences between the three main candidates, image- building is now crucial.

So is image-knocking - of the opposing candidates. Facing Kim Young Sam, 65, is his former ally and now arch-rival, Kim Dae Jung, 67, of the opposition Democratic Party (DP), and 77-year-old Chung Ju Yung, the business magnate who founded South Korea's second-largest conglomerate, Hyundai, and is staging a Ross Perot-style bid for power.

After spending last week assailing Mr Chung for relying on the 170,000 employees of Hyundai to campaign for him, Kim Young Sam has turned his guns on Kim Dae Jung, accusing him of Communist tendencies and links with North Korea. The DP candidate has rejected these charges as a futile smear campaign. For good measure, Mr Chung chipped in to this carnival of democracy yesterday with a claim that a close aide of Kim Young Sam had bought a house with money supplied by a North Korean group in Japan.

Mr Chung has become a complicating factor, but essentially the contest is the final round in the long grudge match between the two Kims. Although both fought against military rule, they have both had their eyes on the presidency, and their failure to unite in 1987 split the opposition vote, allowing the former general, Roh Tae Woo, to win.

This time there are no military candidates and no burning election issues for the candidates to campaign on, apart from the slowing of the Korean economy. So in their place is show business, amplified music and a stream of personal insults that are becoming more daring the closer the election gets. It shows a robust freedom of speech that South Koreans have come to value in their five years of democratic rule.

(Photograph omitted)