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Voters Most Concerned About Economic Issues in South Korean Presidential Race

A former Seoul mayor nicknamed "the bulldozer" is closing in on what experts predict will be a decisive victory in this week's South Korean presidential vote. Lee Myung-bak has aimed his campaign message straight at South Koreans' wallets, and the strategy seems to be paying off. As VOA's Kurt Achin reports, other issues have taken a back seat in the race.

For the average South Korean on the streets of the capital city, the importance of this week's presidential election boils down to a simple factor.

Mr. Kim, an office worker in his 40's, says the domestic economic situation is very hard, and a president's main duty should be to revive the economy and ensure citizens are fed.

That sentiment is being expressed by executives, laborers and housewives alike - most of whom have been telling pollsters their vote in Wednesday's election will go to Grand National Party candidate Lee Myung-bak.

Michael Breen is a business and political consultant who has lived in Seoul for more than 25 years. He says Lee appeals to a get-things-done mentality among Koreans who want an improvement in their standard of living.

"Koreans want someone who they think understand business, can run an economy and not get sidetracked by secondary issues - among them, North Korea," he explained.

Lee served as chairman of a unit of the Hyundai Corporation before becoming mayor of Seoul. As mayor he earned the nickname "bulldozer," by tearing up a highway laid down by Japanese occupiers in the early 20th century. The demolition uncovered a scenic stream underneath.

Lee promises to boost South Korea's economic growth rate from the current four percent to seven percent.

His two-word campaign theme, "be successful," has been greeted with an approval rating that has hovered around 50 percent in recent polling. His rivals have lagged at least 30 points behind.

Breen says perceptions of a stalled economy under outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun have emerged as the overwhelming single issue of the race. Still, he says candidates have avoided discussing the kind of market opening reforms that experts say the country needs, because most South Koreans still have a fiercely nationalistic view of their economy.

"Instinctively... many, many people feel that opening up to foreigners is a bad idea," Breen said. " 'As foreigners make profits, therefore we Koreans lose money.' There's sort of a primitive view of what it all means."

Lee Myung-bak's main rival, United New Democrat Party candidate Chung Dong-young, is receiving only about 16 percent in the polls. Pollsters say he suffers because of his close political connections to President Roh, whom many viewers describe as indecisive.

Chung has focused much of his campaign message on his plans to deepen Mr. Roh's policy of peaceful engagement with North Korea.

Most South Koreans support some degree of practical cooperation with the North, to ensure stability on the Korean peninsula. However, many feel the South has received too little in return for the billions of dollars in aid and investment it has sent North.

They also feel Seoul has not been repaid for the Roh administration's near-total silence on North Korean human rights abuses: Pyongyang's treatment of its own people, and the 1,000 South Korean prisoners of war and abductees the North is believed to be holding.

Patience with the engagement policy suffered a severe setback when North Korea conducted its first nuclear weapons test in October of last year - an event South Korean officials said their concessions and cooperation with the North was designed to avert.

Lee Hoi-chang, the arch-conservative independent candidate who currently ranks third in polling, appeals to voters who want the most radical change from the Roh administration. With about a 10 percent approval rate, Lee says he would halt most inter-Korean projects until the North completely gives up its nuclear weapons and improves its human rights practices.

Cheong Seong-chang is the Director of Inter-Korean studies at the Sejong Institute in Seoul. He says frontrunner Lee represents a middle-of-the-road choice on North Korea.

He says Lee's view is flexible but practical. It demands that North Korea eliminate its nuclear arsenal, but not all at once. He says Lee's policy would link economic cooperation to the North's steps on the nuclear issue.