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.

By , Correspondent

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    Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, running from the ruling Grand National Party, celebrates his re-election at his office in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, June 3, 2010. The deadly sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on North Korea overshadowed local elections Wednesday seen as a gauge of public sentiment toward pro-American president Lee Myung-bak's handling of the security crisis.
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The conservative government of South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak suffered a shocking setback in city and provincial elections seen as a referendum on policy toward North Korea and other issues.

As final returns came in Thursday, stunned analysts and politicians sought to figure out why so many voters clearly were not happy with the government’s response to the sinking of a South Korean Navy vessel in March in which 46 sailors died.

In voting for more than 4,000 city and provincial positions, candidates of the main opposition Democratic Party won seven of 16 elections for governor and mayor as opposed to six for Mr. Lee’s Grand National Party, which previously had 11 of the 16 positions.

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No margin of comfort

The narrow victory of the mayor of Seoul, Oh Se-hoon, to a second term over a woman identified with leftist causes offered scant comfort to Mr. Oh or to Korean conservatives in general.

Declared the winner by a margin of less than 1 percent, Mr. Oh issued a statement in which he said he “in reality was defeated.” His opponent, Han Myeong-sook, who had been a prime minister in the previous liberal government under the late President Roh Moo-hyun, declared “the people of Seoul and the nation have won” even though “I may have lost.”

Oh did not pull ahead in the count until early Thursday when the National Election Commission said he had 47.43 percent of the votes as opposed to 46.83 percent for Ms. Han. The close vote may well have eliminated him as a possible conservative candidate in the 2012 election to succeed Lee, barred by the Constitution from a second five-year term.

A factor in the resurgence of the opposition was the desire of younger voters for change. All told, 54.5 of the electorate went to the polls, the highest percentage in 15 years. Many older voters, more likely to support the conservatives, stayed home or enjoyed the holiday that was set aside for voting.

Oh had earlier been viewed as an easy winner in elections in which Lee’s popularity was believed to have risen on the strength of his strong stance against North Korea. The government on May 20 announced the results of an investigation showing that a North Korean midget submarine had fired the torpedo that sunk the Cheonan in disputed waters in the West or Yellow Sea.

Making matters worse?

Instead of denouncing North Korea for the attack, however, Democratic Party candidates criticized their government for retaliatory measures on trade and aid that have infuriated the North. In rallies, Internet postings, and television ads, they often posed the question, “Do you want war or do you want peace?”

The government was “demonstrating and promoting this Cheonan thing right before the elections,” says Cho Min-soo, an office worker. “It was so carefully planned. People didn’t buy it.” By cutting off trade with North Korea, says Mr. Cho, President Lee “is somehow making matters worse.”

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.

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.”

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