Voters Thursday will replace South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in the closest race ever for high office here.
The election offers an emotive choice between two very different approaches to the future of this sea-locked state of 48 million, and to the US-led alliance on a peninsula often called the last outpost of the cold war. And it comes at a moment when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has opened a dangerous nuclear Pandora's box, and just days after young South Koreans staged the largest anti-US rally ever in Seoul.
"Depending on who becomes president, the direction of South Korea, in any number of issues, including North Korea, will be quite different," says Jung-Hoon Lee, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Essentially, this is a two-man race. Roh Moo-hyun of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party is the liberal candidate of "peace." Lee Hoi-chang of the Grand National Party (GNP) is a conservative candidate of "stability."
While their positions may seem rhetorically close, they hide a giant chasm. In fact, for a country exhibiting striking new forms of nationalist pride, much about this race, once called a shoo-in for Mr. Lee, is unfolding as strikingly divisive. Gaps between generations, regions, classes, and attitudes about the US and the North run deep beneath the surface.
The race sets young Koreans weaned after the 1954 war era - who back diligent peace talkers like Mr. Roh - against older Koreans who knew years of hardship and fear of attack, and who want a leader who won't be fooled by the North.
How to handle the North has been a prime question in the campaign. Roh is a firm supporter of outgoing Kim Dae Jung's Sunshine Policy of engagement - critics now call it appeasement - with the North. He advocates a continued stream of funding, aid, and diplomatic ties - to hold back criticism and not isolate the North, regardless of its often threatening behavior.
Lee is more skeptical, arguing that the North's Kim Jong Il has been steadily manipulating and milking the South, that the Sunshine Policy is a failure, and that while engagement with the North should continue, it should do so under a policy of reciprocity - requiring the North to show concrete improvements in human rights, refugee issues, kidnapping claims, denuclearization, and opening up, in exchange for help.
The presidency carries far greater power in Korea than in the West. There are fewer checks and balances on the executive branch. Presidents here can stamp their vision and values strongly on the nation to a degree not found in the West. They also work with a national assembly much weaker than, say, the US Congress.
This strong-rule tradition enabled Kim Dae Jung to push his Sunshine Policy in 2000, and will just as likely influence the next presidency. "With the election this week, both candidates want to show they can play to the center. But once in power, they will shift to their basic beliefs. So this is an important vote," says Mr. Jung-Hoon.
Last week, the North's "dear leader" added a dimension to the race that has yet to be weighed by announcing that he would unseal some 8,000 spent plutonium fuel rods and turn off the cameras that safeguard them. A day earlier, Kim Jong Il said he would restart a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, 50 miles north of Pyongyang, that was shut down in 1995 after a treaty with the US.
The move caused a diplomatic scramble between the US, Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea. The spent fuel rods can be turned into weapons- grade fissionable material relatively quickly.
The official US reaction to the North, however, has been mild, with some experts saying the White House does not want to agitate the peninsula prior to the elections in a manner that would aid Roh, whose politics are seen as more welcome in Pyongyang. The Bush team was early on dismissive of the Sunshine Policy. With its architect Kim Dae Jung politically crippled following the investigation last spring of his three sons for corruption, the White House has reportedly been waiting until after the election to shape a policy with the South.
Kim Jong Il's provocative moves last week follow a tempestuous autumn. He admitted in October to US envoy James Kelly that he had a secret program to enrich uranium, a violation of several agreements signed by the North.
Roh's media adviser, Ben Limb, told the Monitor that his candidate, unlike Kim Dae Jung, will subject his North policy to a review by other South Korean leaders, allowing him a way to change policies if dealing with the North becomes untenable. Still, he says, "We must build mutual trust with the North, with Kim Jong Il. Helping the North is an investment in the future."
Lee's adviser, Park Shin-il, counters that the race is "a choice between a guy who is rational and one who is radical. Roh is radical enough to believe that we must give cash with no questions to the North, and to never provoke Kim Jong Il."
The campaign has implicitly reopened a long running debate on US troops here. Roh tacitly supports a questioning of US troops - while Lee supports the harder-line policies of the Bush White House and troops.
In the end, it may be local politics that make the difference. Typical of South Korean elections, the race sets the southwest region of Cholla-do - which is agricultural, historically deprived, and overwhelmingly pro-Millennium Party - against the eastern region which has been the traditional seedbed of rulers and nobility, and which is overwhelmingly GNP. (The south and east may vote as high as 90 percent for the MDP and GNP respectively.)
That regional split has campaigns searching for swing votes. For example, a recent promise by Roh to move 500,000 government employees from Seoul to the undecided Chungchong region seems to be backfiring. Roh's idea of a new administrative capital, apart from coming across as cavalier and a bit pandering, has caused a reaction among voters in Seoul. Roh says the idea will help traffic in the city. But so far, that explanation hasn't sold.
One computer technician says he was planning to vote for Roh but is now switching to Lee. "I just don't trust that kind of change," he says.
The race tightened measurably three weeks ago when World Cup soccer chief and candidate Chung Mong-joon joined Roh. But some of Roh's votes may be drained by far-left Korean Democratic Labor Party candidate Kwon Young-gil, who was instrumental in organizing the 50,000 strong anti-US protest in a downtown plaza in Seoul on Saturday.