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Dictator's daughter leading polls ahead of South Korean election

Conservative candidate Park Geun-hye holds the slight edge ahead of an election Wednesday that could affect relations with North Korea.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / December 17, 2012

South Korean presidential candidate Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party waves to supporters during her election campaign rally in Hwaseong, south of Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Dec. 17, 2012.

Kim Ju-sung, Yonhap/AP

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Seoul, South Korea

The voices of party followers blare over loudspeakers from public squares shouting out the slogans of opposing sides in a presidential contest that could have a deep effect on South Korea's relations with North Korea and its alliance with the US.

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Rows of placard-carrying men and women wearing red coats and sweaters preach the need for a strong conservative president who will stand up against North Korea and lead the country out of economic difficulties.

Their standard-bearer, Park Geun-hye, the daughter of South Korea’s long-ruling dictatorial Park Chung-hee, is believed to hold a slight edge in the presidential election Wednesday.

She faces a tough challenge from the liberal Moon Jae-in, a candidate of the opposition Democratic United Party. A human rights lawyer, Mr. Moon promises to stop the rich from getting richer and more powerful.

Several hundred feet away, demonstrators dressed in yellow carry placards telling voters to “change the future” by voting for Moon. They are campaigning to reverse the deeply conservative pattern of the presidency of Lee Myung-bak, elected five years ago in a massive reaction against a decade of liberal leadership.

"Who gets elected will have an influence on the balance of policy," says Hahm Chai-bong, president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies here. "It would make a pretty big difference if Moon were elected and started improving engagement policy toward North Korea."

Mr. Hahm, however, doesn't see policy toward North Korea or the US as the dominant issue for voters. "We don't have that anti-Americanism," he says. "There is a lessening of ideological tension. Everyone is clamoring for jobs" – with voters disillusioned by President Lee's support for the huge business conglomerates that dominate the economy.

So reviled was Mr. Lee’s Grand National Party that it fared badly in National Assembly elections in April. While his popularity plummeted, the party changed its name to New Frontier Party with Park Geun-hye as its leader. A long-time member of the assembly, she is popular among older Koreans, many of whom look back fondly on the rule of her father, widely credited with building up South Korea’s economy while ruling as a virtual dictator with a record of brutality and suppression of his foes.

At the center of power

Ms. Park promises to build a “creative economy” – a term that she bandied about Sunday in the last of three television debates with Mr. Moon – while bowing in apology to those who “suffered wounds and hardships” in the 18 years and five months in which her father ruled the country after staging a coup in May 1961.

Though she disavows his legacy, she knows what it’s like to be at the center of power: She was Korea’s first lady for a little more than five years, after her mother was assassinated in August 1974 by a bullet fired by a Korean from Japan who had intended to kill her father. (Her father was eventually assassinated by his intelligence chief in 1979.)

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