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At polls, South Korea conservatives pay for response to Cheonan sinking

City and provincial elections dealt a blow to the conservative government of South Korea President Lee Myung-bak. Many voters were unhappy with the strong response to the sinking of the Cheonan Navy vessel.

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That sentiment prevailed as expected in the southwestern Cholla region, including Kwangju, an important city that was the scene of a bloody uprising 30 years ago. The southwest was the main source of strength for the late President Kim Dae-jung, who initiated the Sunshine policy of reconciliation with North Korea while president from 1998 to 2003.

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Unexpectedly, however, candidates from the Democratic Party, which a few years ago was in tatters, also won the post of mayor in the industrial port city of Incheon, west of Seoul, a traditional conservative stronghold. Opposition candidates also won in provinces in the southeast, central region, and north, all of which had also been seen as conservative, while conservatives held on in Pusan, Korea’s biggest port and second biggest city, in the major southeastern city of Daegu, and in the heavily populated province surrounding Seoul and Incheon.

The Grand National Party’s poor showing brought about the resignations of Chung Mong-joon as party leader and other party and government officials. Mr. Chung, a son of the late Hyundai group founder Chung Ju-yung and the principal owner of Hyundai Heavy Industries, the world’s largest merchant ship manufacturer, said simply, “I humbly accept the voice of the Korean people of rebuke.”

The influence within the party of Mr.Chung, one of Korea’s two or three richest men, also reflected another reason for the government’s falling popularity, namely, its close ties to the conglomerates or chaebol that dominate the economy. President Lee in the 1970s rose to chairman of Hyundai Engineering and Construction, then the country’s biggest builder, before going into politics.

“They’re all pro-chaebol,” says Kim Jong-min, a shopkeeper. “These people are filthy rich. You see the results of what people think about them in the voting.” In Seoul, Mayor Oh was victorious on the strength of votes in the wealthy districts south of the Han River that bisects the capital while far behind elsewhere.

“The rich-and-poor problem has turned very serious,” says Lee Chong-chang, a commentator and former ambassador. “The difference between rich and poor is not so acute as in the US, but Koreans are very much egalitarian.”

Mr. Lee also criticizes President Lee for having hesitated too long to blame North Korea for the attack on the Cheonan while awaiting the results of the investigation. “In the middle of that confusion, the other side has been taking advantage of the case,” he says. “Lee Myung-bak must have been very surprised.”

Albert Kim, a former United Nations bureaucrat, sees the government as having been overly confident. “People are asking if there must be a war between North and South Korea,” he says. “They say not to worry but do not explain why. Koreans are educated and trained so they should be convinced.”

Mr. Kim recalls seeing Han, the mayoral candidate, on TV asking, “Are you afraid of war?” and answering, “Then I know how to solve the problem.” She never said exactly how, says Kim, “but people say she knows.”