Voters opt for change in S. Korea

Poor results for the ruling party in Wednesday's local elections portends an end to liberal rule in 2007.

At a crowded bus stop, a young man on an election day holiday from his university talks about why he and most people he knew opposed the party of the left-of-center President Roh Moo-hyun in Wednesday's local elections. "He does nothing," says Park Jin Han. "He talks a lot, but he has no program and no ideas."

The perception of a central government unable to deal with economic problems and weak in the face of North Korean demands lies at the crux of a reaction that guaranteed conservative victories in two-thirds of the races for provincial governorships and mayors of major cities.

For Korea, the reversion to conservatism portends the downfall of a decade of liberal leadership in the next presidential election in December 2007. While the ruling party's efforts at reconciliation with North Korea were not the paramount issue, the sense of forever making concessions to the North was a factor in the voting - and could be among the policies that change if the liberals are ousted next year.

"We are sick of their policies," says a retired economist, after voting for all six conservative candidates on the ballot in his district here. "It is not just the economy or North Korea," he adds. "They are all mingled together. It is everything."

At press time, early returns showed candidates from the Grand National Party (GNP) leading in 13 of 16 key regional posts, including races for mayor of this capital city as well as Pusan, Korea's second city and biggest port. The ruling Uri Party appeared to be leading in only one race.

The GNP leader, Park Geun-hye, helped her party score the decisive victory though not herself a candidate in Wednesday's election. She gained sympathy in the middle of the campaign after a deranged attacker who held Uri Party membership stabbed her with a box-cutter, shouting that he wanted to kill her in the name of "democracy."

Ms. Park is the daughter of President Park Chung Hee, assassinated by his intelligence chief in 1979 after 18 years in power.

Recovering from her wound, Park appeared on election day smiling confidently, clearly a leading contender for her party's presidential nomination. The other conservative contender, Lee Myung Bak, outgoing mayor of Seoul, appeared equally confident, riding a wave of popularity reflecting aggressive building and cleanup programs, notably rehabilitation of a stream running through the center of the capital.

On the issue of North Korea, the GNP favors a firmer line than the Roh government's policy of accommodating Pyongyang - a policy that has caused friction with Washington. North Korean media in recent days have blasted the conservatives, charging Washington with wanting to establish a "puppet regime" in South Korea.

"There's no reason for this government always to be at odds with the United States," says Chang Ki Tak, an office worker. "You have all these leftists in the government who want to destroy relations with Washington, and then send their children to the States."

Indeed, the election results confirm a groundswell of discontent in which Mr. Roh and his top aides are seen as weak and ineffective in ways that might escape the notice of foreigners focused either on a steadily rising gross domestic product or periodic anti-American outbursts.

"The biggest companies get rich, but small and medium enterprise is suffering," says a shopkeeper, Kim Myung Chul. "I know a lot of people are unable to make money. Some are closing down or leaving the country."

Factor in the skyrocketing price of real estate, and middle-class Koreans begin to feel almost dispossessed. Two- and three-bedroom apartments in the fashionable and convenient districts south of the Han River cost at least $2 million or $3 million apiece, leaving young professionals to commute long distances from suburbs where apartments may go for more than $1 million each.

Exacerbating the financial crunch, thousands of recent graduates are failing to find jobs for which they have trained, creating an alliance of sorts between a disillusioned middle-class and restive youths who need to get careers on track.

"Maybe 1 in 5 graduates get work right after graduation," says Kim Hye Suu, who graduated from a leading university several years ago and earns money teaching English and translating. "Many go on to graduate school when they can't find anything or they travel abroad for a while."

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