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Former Prime Minister Says He is South Korea's Real Conservative Choice for President


A former South Korean prime minister says his strong conservative credentials are what his country needs in a president. Lee Hoi-chang says he would take a harder line on North Korea and return the South to values he says helped build the nation. But as VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul, the momentum that got Lee into the race slowed when the election frontrunner was cleared of corruption allegations.

At 72, Lee Hoi-chang is the eldest of the three leading candidates in South Korea's presidential race, a possible advantage in this Confucian culture, where seniority is revered. He also has served as a prime minister and Supreme Court justice.

However, those credentials are not likely to lead to victory in Wednesday's vote. Lee's approval rating hovers at about 10 percent of poll respondents, while the frontrunner, former Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak, enjoys a 46 percent approval rating. The two men are not related.

Until recently, they belonged to the same conservative Grand National Party. However, Lee Hoi-chang announced his independent candidacy last month, when Lee Myung-bak was threatened by allegations of fraud and stock price manipulation.

Prosecutors cleared Lee Myung-bak of wrongdoing - but his rival still hopes to seize on popular skepticism about the frontrunner.

Television commercials for Lee Hoi-chang promise he will build a "clean and right" South Korea - an indirect reference to the allegations against his opponent.

Lee Hoi-chang portrays himself as the "real" conservative in this years's race.

Lee shouts out to a crowd: "who is the silver conservative in this race, and who is the gold?" The question is a comparison between himself and Lee Myung-bak.

The independent candidate also is especially critical of incumbent President Roh Moo-hyun's engagement policy with North Korea.

In his candidacy announcement, he derided what he calls "unprincipled" politics by the Roh administration as the cause of North Korea's nuclear weapons capabilities.

Pyongyang tested a nuclear weapon last year despite receiving billions of dollars in South Korean aid and investment aimed at preventing such a move. Lee says he would halt large South Korean investment projects in North Korea, saying they only transfer cash to the North's elite.

Not surprisingly, North Korea's official media has lashed out, calling Lee "human scum" and other vivid names.

Lee Hoi-chang has experience running for the South Korean presidency - and losing. He has made two unsuccessful runs. Polls indicate he is fairly certain to add a third to that collection this week.