A street-level sampling of S. Korean voters. Informal poll shows the three leading candidates neck and neck

The people of Suwon crowd the narrow streets and alleyways of the central market. Warmed by a winter sun, the shoppers browse among pushcarts piled high with bundled sheets of dried seaweed and shiny squid. A chicken vendor, her weathered brown face framed in a bright yellow kerchief, somewhat reluctantly reveals her favorite in South Korea's presidental election - opposition firebrand Kim Dae Jung. Not missing a beat as she deftly removes a chicken's head with her heavy knife, she explains simply that ``if he's elected, poor people will get better off.''

Around the corner, the owner of a small electrical appliance store is equally sure of his choice - ruling party candidate Roh Tae Woo. ``There will be chaos if the other candidates are elected.''

A well-dressed woman, makeup carefully applied and jewelry hanging around her neck, stops after leaving a clothing store. Her choice is moderate opposition leader Kim Young Sam. ``Kim Dae Jung would go for radical change,`` she worries, ``but Kim Young Sam will go for more gradual change.''

The people of Suwon are ordinary Korean folk, undistinguished from some 25 million other voters who will go to the polls on Dec. 16 to freely elect their president for the first time since 1971. These three responses were typical of a variety of voters interviewed by the Monitor in an informal survey of this industrial city of 450,000.

With the advice of a local political scientist, we visited different locales and randomly asked the preferences, and the reasons for their choice, of 114 residents. The interviews yielded a portrait of the supporters of the four major candidates. Though it was not a poll, the results show a neck-and-neck race between Mr. Roh, Kim Dae Jung, and Kim Young Sam, with former Premier Kim Jong Pil running well behind. The numbers are consistent with those of polls that have been conducted for the private use of major Korean newspapers and campaigns.

Roh and Kim Young Sam were even, the choice of 31 voters each. Kim Dae Jung was close behind, with 27 backers. Kim Jong Pil was supported by eight people. There were 19 undecided, but eight said they would choose between Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam.

Suwon sits in the center of Kyonggi province, less than an hour's drive from Seoul. This region is considered the key battleground of the campaign, representing the balance of victory nationwide. Outside of the Seoul-Kyonggi area, Korean political analysts say, the votes of the three leaders are fairly evenly balanced and determined by regional loyalties.

The city is ringed by factories, by the electronics plants where the giant conglomerate Samsung pours out videocassette recorders and chemical plants where cosmetics are made. College campuses and middle-class housing projects dot the suburbs. The downtown consists of two and three story buildings, the sprawling marketplace at its center.

``Outsiders think this a conservative, closed town,'' says Lee Wha Soo, a political science professor at Ajou University, ``but the inhabitants don't think so.''

In the 1950s, the opposition party was dominant. During the era of Park Chung Hee, the Army leader who ruled from 1961 to 1979, the ruling party won most of the National Assembly seats. But more recently in 1985, the opposition gained an upper hand again.

All four candidates have held rallies here, the biggest by Roh. The salaried middle class, says Professor Lee, mostly favors Kim Young Sam, while small businessmen and more wealthy people prefer Roh. Kim Dae Jung has strength among the workers, students, and the poor. Kim Jong Pil has followers among the conservative middle class who positively remember the Park era.

Suwon voters gave clear evidence that Roh has been successful in hammering away at the theme that an opposition victory will mean instability, threatening the economic gains in Korea that have so impressed much of the world. ``Stability'' was the reason cited by almost every Roh supporter for their decision to back the former Army general.

At the Hyundai Apartments, the most expensive complex in town, ladies in fur-trimmed coats entering the supermarket were overwhelmingly in favor of Roh. ``A sudden change of government wouldn't be helpful for the country,'' said one fashionable woman. ``As far as people shouting `democracy,' radical change is not going to get them anywhere.''

At the Won Chon Chu Gong apartment houses, where Suwon white-collar workers raise their families, Kim Young Sam is the favorite. ``It's time for a change in government,'' says a woman carrying a young child.

Kim, says another, is a man of moderation. ``I believe there will be less retaliation if he is elected.''

Outside the gates of Samsung Electronics, the workers nervously decline to talk under the gaze of company guards. Around the corner, they reveal a clear preference for Kim Dae Jung. ``He looks as if he's going to bring in real change,'' says a worker in overalls.

In a drugstore in the central market, a clerk expresses a common sympathy for Kim Dae Jung's long years of imprisonment and exile for his opposition to military rule. ``He has suffered the most,'' the young man says.

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