DEMOCRACY is still such a fragile exercise in South Korea that a top issue leading up to the Dec. 18 presidential election is the fairness of the campaign itself.
The three candidates, who were only allowed to hit the stump Saturday, are warning Koreans not to sell their votes for money or gifts, nor tolerate "dirty" tactics from the other candidates. Selling trustworthiness more than promises appears to be the campaign theme.
Even the outgoing president, Roh Tae Woo, who declared himself neutral in the race, got caught on the "fairness" issue when he sent security men to pick up his brother-in-law who appeared to be defecting from the ruling party to the opposition.
President Roh's neutrality was in such doubt that the opposition Democratic Party boycotted parliament until he put in a caretaker neutral Cabinet in September. A politically biased Cabinet, as in the past, likely would have used the government's 600,000 bureaucrats to influence voters. Roh withdrew himself also from the leadership of the ruling Democratic Liberal Party (DLP).
Concern over the democratic process reflects the fact that this is only the second presidential election since the end of military rule. And for the first time, none of the candidates has ever served in the military.
Roh, an ex-military officer, won the presidential election in 1987 after two civilian candidates, Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung, split the opposition vote. Roh later wooed Kim Young Sam to join the ruling party, which then made him its candidate in this election.
Now voters once again have a choice between the "two Kims," as they are called, in addition to tycoon Chung Ju Yung, whose huge Hyundai business empire gives him a financial edge to influence the campaign. Roh is required by the Constitution to leave office in February after serving one five-year term.
Kim Young Sam, while widely seen as "clean" after his decades of fighting military dictatorship, has become tainted by the ruling party's corruption. He himself faces allegations of giving $60,000 to a local official to buy votes in last March's parliamentary elections.
Mr. Kim admits the government has improperly meddled in elections and may have rigged votes. But in his campaign, he hints that Mr. Chung of the United Peoples Party (UPP) is buying votes and the other Kim has not been as clean as he has. Kim Young Sam tells voters that he can reduce government corruption, citing an old Korean adage that the upper stretch of a stream must be clean in order to have clean water downstream.
Roh has pledged to make this election the cleanest and fairest in South Korean history. Two dozen people were arrested on charges of electioneering before official campaigning started. Some were accused of vote-buying. Each candidate is allowed to spend $47 million in the campaign.
To keep the military from influencing the ballot count, soldiers will be allowed to vote outside their bases for the first time. In the past, voting on military bases sometimes has been rigged to help certain candidates.
Kim Dae Jung, who appears to be running second in the polls to the DLP's Kim, has been hurt by the arrest of one of his aides for allegedly being part of a big spy ring run by North Korea.
Both he and Chung charge that the government, despite the neutral Cabinet, is still "oppressing" them in the race.
Chung also has appealed to those voters who have grown tired of the "two Kims," who are seen as perennial politicians. All three candidates are over 65 years old.