All bets are off now in South Korea's presidential race. With just a little more than a month to go before the vote, a new independent candidate may draw support away from the former Seoul Mayor who, until now, appeared certain to win. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

Ending weeks of expectation, 72-year-old Lee Hoi-chang announced Wednesday he is entering the race for South Korean president.

Lee has made two bids for the job before. He has also served as a South Korean Supreme Court justice, and as chairman of South Korea's conservative Grand National Party, or GNP.

Until now, most South Koreans had taken for granted that the GNP's official candidate, former Seoul Mayor Lee Myoung-bak, would cruise to an easy victory in the presidential vote, scheduled for December 19.

In public opinion polls, the former mayor has emerged several times as popular as his main rival.

But now, Lee Hoi-chang's split from the GNP to pursue an independent candidacy is expected to siphon away a significant portion of Lee Myoung-bak's support.

Lee the independent is widely seen as more conservative than his official GNP rival. He is especially critical of incumbent President Roh Moo-hyun's policy of engagement with North Korea, which has seen billions of dollars in aid funneled to the North with few or no strings attached.

Lee Hoi-Chang said Wednesday that North Korea had become a nuclear weapons nation as the result of unprincipled South Korean policies towards the North. He promised to strengthen the South Korea-U.S. alliance, which he describes as "on the road to ruin" (seriously damaged).

Lee Hoi-chang's message is a more strident version of what other conservatives have been saying: that South Korea should demand more reciprocity from Pyongyang in return for aid and cooperation.

Kim Jin-hah, a political scientist at South Korea's Keimyoung University, says Lee Hoi-chang's bid for the presidency could end up hurting conservatives in general.

Kim says by diluting the conservative vote, Lee may actually be improving the chances of the main progressive candidate, Chung Dong-young.

Chung, a former Unification Minister in President Roh's administration, has promised an expansion of the North Korea engagement policy.