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Roh Moo-hyun Wins S. Korean Presidential Election - 2002-12-19

South Korean ruling party candidate Roh Moo-hyun has won Thursday's presidential election, a contest dominated by concerns about North Korea. Mr. Roh has pledged to maintain the current government's policy of engaging communist North Korea, despite recent revelations about its nuclear program.

In one of the tightest presidential races in South Korea's history, younger voters triumphed over the older generation. Their choice, liberal ruling party candidate Roh Moo-hyun won the election.

Mr. Roh, who supports engagement with North Korea, beat conservative opposition candidate Lee Hoi-chang by a slim margin.

The 56-year-old labor lawyer from a poor farming family, and the patrician, 67-year-old Mr. Lee were virtually tied in surveys before voting started, after a campaign dominated by the issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons program and the status of U.S .troops in the South.

Politics professor Im Hyung-Baeg of Korea University says that the race was a battle of the generations, with young voters supporting Mr. Roh and their parents turning out for Mr. Lee. It is the Korean decision to transfer power from the older generation and Cold War era to the post-Cold War generation and the younger generation," he said.

Mr. Roh favors engagement with the North, saying economic exchanges and dialogue could encourage the Stalinist nation to abandon its militaristic tendencies and Cold War rhetoric. He disagrees with the Bush administration's effort to isolate Pyongyang, which recently told a U.S. diplomat that it has a secret nuclear weapons program and announced plans to restart old nuclear facilities, frozen for nine years.

Mr. Roh has said repeatedly that as president, he would ask for a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Ties with the U.S. were the other key election issue. Anti-American protests snowballed in recent weeks after a military court acquitted two U.S. servicemen whose armored vehicle ran over and killed two South Korean schoolgirls.

Some Roh supporters have called for a withdrawal of the 37,000 U.S. troops based in South Korea. Mr. Roh says the bilateral agreement defining their legal status needs revision.

The National Election Commission says voter turnout Thursday was 70 percent, the lowest for a South Korean presidential election. Mr. Roh will take the helm in February, after his mentor, Nobel laureate Kim Dae-jung, wraps up his five-year term.