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Former Seoul Mayor Closes In on S. Korean Presidential Win


A former Seoul mayor who bills himself as a pro-business conservative is expected to become South Korea's next president by an overwhelming margin when voters go to the polls on Wednesday. As VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul, Lee Myung-bak is appealing directly to South Korea's tradition of economic pragmatism.

Whether they support him or not, most South Koreans think the Lee Myung-bak political machine is headed for a decisive win.

Lee, the nominee of the conservative Grand National Party has a strong lead in polling. His nearest rival trails Lee's 46 percent approval rating by about 30 points.

Lee's message is relatively simple, and he gets it across to international reporters.

"I will rebuild Korean economy," he said. "I will remake the Korean structure."

He promises to kick start an economy that many think has stalled under President Roh Moo-hyun.

Mr. Roh, whose term expires in January, is widely blamed for what voters consider indecisive management of the economy.

Lee derives some of his pro-business credentials from his past as a former chairman of a unit in South Korea's Hyundai conglomerate. But his reputation as a hard-driving leader was perhaps most firmly established by a project he pushed through as mayor of Seoul.

Despite initial ridicule, Lee managed to renew the Cheongyecheon stream, which runs through Seoul. In addition to beautifying the city, the project strikes a chord of Korean nationalism, because the stream was paved over by Japanese occupiers in the early 20th century.

Lee also says he will adjust what he considers an overly generous and uncritical approach toward communist North Korea, and exchange it for a "businesslike" approach. He says if North Korea verifiably gets rid of its nuclear weapons, he will work to transform its impoverished economy and raise North Korean per capita income to $3,000 a year within 10 years.

Lee says that includes a review of President Roh's promises for new inter-Korean projects, which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Lee also says he will strengthen the country's alliance with the United States, which has been strained in part by President Roh's approach toward North Korea.

Lee's campaign was tarnished by allegations of past fraud and stock manipulation. Prosecutors recently cleared him of those charges, a move Lee's opponents call politically biased. Polling experts say even some of Lee's supporters doubt he is completely innocent of the allegations - however, their desire for political change outweighs their reservations.

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