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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.

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Moon also has experience near the center of power. He was chief of staff for Roh Moo-hyun, the left-leaning president who governed for five years before President Lee’s election, and sees his battle against Park as a crusade for democracy against a return to authoritarian rule. His message is blunt – “The only thing that can save the Republic of Korea from this crisis is you,” he repeats at rallies in a bid to win over the undecided voters who may tip the balance in the election.

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What’s the difference on North Korea?

Both Park and Moon have denounced North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket last week that fired a small satellite into orbit, and they have both called for resuming dialogue with the North. 

It’s assumed, though, that Park would be considerably tougher in negotiations with North Korea than Moon, who would like to return to the era of the Sunshine policy of reconciliation initiated by Roh Moo-hyun’s predecessor, Kim Dae-jung.

“Park is not going to substantially move forward unless Pyongyang owns up and apologizes for the ship sinking and island shelling,” says Tom Coyner, long-time business consultant and political commentator here. He’s referring to two incidents in 2010 that upset North-South relations – the sinking of the Korean navy ship, the Cheonan, in March of that year in which 46 sailors were killed and then, eight months later, the shelling of an island in the Yellow Sea that killed two South Korean marines and two civilian contractors.

Mr. Coyner believes that Moon is “most likely to cave” in talks with North Korea in view of his record as a liberal critic of the government from his student days. Nonetheless, he says, “both candidates come across as reasonable and moderate” – neither right-wing conservative nor far leftist.

The debate

In fact, in their television debate on Sunday, while thousands of North Koreans were mourning the first anniversary of the death of leader Kim Jong-il, neither of them talked at all about North Korea. Rather, they dwelled on education, health care, the economy, corruption, and the difficulties young people face in finding jobs: Moon jabbed at government inadequacies, while Park offered her own solutions.

In the midst of the campaigning, one topic that seems strangely missing is that Park has a serious chance of becoming the first female president of a country that’s regarded as a bastion of male chauvinism. “It’s amazing to me that people don’t seem to care so much about that,” says Chung Hye-yung, a woman working in an office in central Seoul. “It’s because the media play all to the conservative right.”

Ms. Chung believes the priority is to upset conservative leadership. “We have to change this administration,” she says. “The vote is not on whether she’s a woman. This vote is old people versus young people. Young people are fed up with the old politicians.”

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