As North Korea plans missile launch, South Korea's conservatives edge out liberals

Conservative candidates did surprisingly well in elections seen as a test of South Korea's policies. Economy and North Korea may be factors.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
Park Geun-hye, head of the ruling Saenuri Party's interim governing body, center, and her party members arrive at the National Cemetery in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, April 12. The party claimed a majority Thursday in a parliamentary vote that centered on domestic issues but had implications for Seoul's relationship with the North.

The daughter of South Korea’s longest ruling dictator emerged today as the front-runner for president after conservative candidates did surprisingly well in elections seen as a test of the government’s policies.

Park Geun-hye, whose father, Park Chung-hee, seized power in a military coup in 1961 and ruled with an iron fist until his assassination by his intelligence chief in 1979, was clearly relieved by the outcome of elections for all 300 seats in the National Assembly. At the same time, she distanced herself from the country’s president, Lee Myung-bak, whose pro-business policies have alienated many voters. 

At a news conference, Ms. Park promised to “start anew with the mindset that we will be remembered as sinners if we revert to the old ways.”

Forecast by many observers to fall behind the opposition Democratic United Party, her Saenuri Party won a slim majority of 152 seats against 127 for the opposition. The Saenuri, roughly translated as New Frontier, is the name for the conservative grouping, which last year changed its name from Hanara or Grand National Party as polls showed President Lee’s sharply declining popularity.

The election results should bring an end to attempts by government foes to invalidate a free trade agreement with the US that was approved earlier by the assembly. Conservatives, led by Park, may also be inclined to press for negotiations with North Korea, which has totally rejected overtures by the Lee government in view of its hard-line policies, including refusal to provide food aid.

“The Saenuri rebranded themselves,” says Michael Breen, author of a book on Korean customs and culture. “Right now Park Geun-hye is the most likely candidate to be the next president. The Democrats are disunited.”

Park promised reform for millions of citizens who see the conglomerates that dominate the economy as enriching their owners at the expense of the poor and middle class.

“Never again,” she vowed, “will we waste time on issues that are not relevant to people's lives.”

Young people in particular, however, doubt such assurances. “I am disappointed by the election results,” says Chang Sung-eun, who works for a small company. “I think we have to change. I want new faces. The rich people are much richer, and the poor are much poorer.”

The election results swept the headlines here while the world awaited the launch by North Korea of a long-range missile. The North says the rocket will put a weather satellite into orbit while the US and South Korea denounce the move as a "provocative" effort to test a new model with a range as far as the US west coast. Many observers expected the launch on Thursday morning, but strong winds evidently forced postponement.

North Korea’s state media said the missile would roar off the pad in the northwestern corner of the country near the Chinese border at the latest by Monday, the day after massive celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the founding "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung.

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