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In Korean elections, conservatives' win boosts president

President Lee can lean on his new Assembly majority to pursue economic reforms and a tougher N. Korea policy.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 10, 2008


South Korea's President Lee Myung Bak appears to have won the support he needs to pursue economic reforms and a tougher line toward North Korea, after his Grand National Party won a majority in a National Assembly previously controlled by outspoken foes of his conservative policies.

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"He's getting the vote of confidence he needs," says Park Nei Hei, an economics professor and consultant with the Boston Consulting Group. "He's getting Korean sentiment behind him."

The elections strengthened Mr. Lee's position as he prepares to fly to Washington next week for his first meeting with President Bush since winning the presidency in December, when he defeated by a landslide a leftist candidate backed by a government with very different views on economic problems and North Korea.

Mr. Park predicts that "MB," as Lee is often referred to in headlines and conversations, "will not have any problem doing what he has to do emphasizing the growth of the economy and loosening up regulations."

Lee also is expected to try to reach an understanding with Mr. Bush on how to deal with North Korea after a series of rhetorical attacks in which the North has denounced him as a "traitor" and threatened to reduce South Korea "to ashes."

Conservatives from Mr. Lee's party captured more than half the 299 assembly seats, while candidates from two smaller parties added another 30 seats to the conservative total.

One of the president's political allies running for office, Chung Mong Joon, one of Korea's wealthiest men, defeated Chung Dong Young, whom Lee had trounced in the presidential election in December. Chung Mong Joon inherited his controlling stake in Hyundai Heavy Industries, the world's largest shipbuilder, from his father Chung Ju Yung, founder of the Hyundai empire.

Conservatives dominated every region except the southwest, the springboard of the rise to power of former president Kim Dae Jung, who initiated Korea's Sunshine policy of reconciliation with North Korea during his term from 1998 to 2002.

Candidates had to battle apathy among voters, who had long expected conservatives to take over the assembly. Only about 44 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots one day after crucial talks in Singapore between US nuclear envoy Christopher Hill and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye Gwan.