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Smuggled Missile Discovery Impacts S. Korean Politics - 2002-12-11

News that North Korea may have been smuggling Scud missiles to the Middle East is taking center stage in South Korean politics ahead of next week's presidential election. The ruling party, which has favored engaging North Korea, is fending off new criticism for its liberal policies.

The discovery of a vessel in the Arabian Sea carrying a dozen Scud missiles thought to be from North Korea is threatening the presidential ambitions of the liberal candidate in South Korea's tight election race. Roh Moo-hyun of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party has run on continuing President Kim Dae-jung's Nobel Peace Prize winning policy of engaging communist North Korea so the two countries can eventually reunify.

But Wednesday, following the smuggled missile discovery, leading conservative candidate Lee Hoi-chang of the Grand National Party accused Mr. Roh's party of recklessness. He said South Korea's economic aid had allowed Pyongyang to pursue its development of weapons of mass destruction and missile technology.

Mr. Lee is pushing a much tougher policy, more in line with what the Bush Administration would like to see. The conservatives say engagement has lead to South Korea giving away too much with little in return from the North.

Mr. Roh is trying to limit the political damage, by issuing new calls for North Korea to stop exporting missiles and weapons of mass destruction technology. But he has said that engagement gives the North incentive to change, where as further isolating Pyongyang could lead the North step up weapons development to use as a bargaining chip with the international community and to export as a source of badly needed cash.

In past South Korean elections, security scares triggered by North Korean actions, have favored the conservative candidates by reminding voters of the threat across the border.

The issue of North Korea has been high on the December 19 election campaign, after U.S. reports in October that that Pyongyang has been developing a nuclear weapons program in violation of international agreements.