SEOUL — Roh Moo Hyun, the recently anointed presidential candidate of Kim Dae Jung’s Millennium Democratic party, or MDP, for December’s elections, has been on a roll this spring. A relative political unknown, he succeeded in toppling his party’s front-runner for the nomination, Rhee In Je, while generating enough political momentum to earn him the sobriquet “Roh Phoon.”

Now comes the hard part — taking on the Grand National Party’s nominee, Lee Hoi Chang, who narrowly lost the last presidential election to Kim. Snatching the nomination from a political maverick like Rhee, who played the spoiler role in 1997, is one thing; taking on the conservative South Korean political establishment centered in the GNP (which felt cheated by the outcome of the 1997 election) is quite another.

The question is whether “Roh Phoon” will blow over or stay on course, again blowing away the political opposition. For the moment, the political typhoon has stalled, with a 2-1 lead in the early polls now whittled down to a neck-and-neck contest between Roh and Lee.

Roh, a former human rights lawyer whose admiration for the president during the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, led him to write the book “Roh Moo Hyun Meets Lincoln” — about how Lincoln influenced his political thinking — makes no bones about his reformer credentials, raising eyebrows both within South Korea and in the United States. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelley recently noted (in reference to Roh) that “Korea’s next leadership may seek to redefine the nation’s relationship with the U.S. in ways that challenge our traditional role in Korea.”

In the past, Roh has questioned the need for a U.S. military presence but has shifted course and now backs an American presence even after unification. He also favors dialogue with Pyongyang but is less categorical than his opponent in demanding reciprocity and more convinced of the necessity for South Korea to pursue an aggressive policy stance in promoting a U.S.-North Korean agreement on missiles and nuclear inspections.

South Korea is probably more divided politically than at any time since the end of military rule a decade and a half ago — not over whether but how to effectively engage the North. Reformers like Kim and Roh put the emphasis on dialogue while conservatives favor greater reliance on the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

On domestic policy, Roh is more amenable to scrapping the harsh National Security Law under which South Koreans are liable to prosecution for advocating pro-North Korean policies or having unauthorized contacts with North Koreans. The law has been criticized by the United Nations as well as international human rights organizations, and is clearly out of tune with the times as increasing people-to-people contact between the two Koreas makes it less enforceable.

For its part, the conservative opposition would tie any amendment of the law to the North’s eliminating provisions in its Workers Party charter calling for the communization of South Korea.

On economic issues, Roh favors greater government intervention in the marketplace in the interest of workers’ rights, consumer protection and social justice than do conservatives who have the full backing of chaebol chieftains. He also favors breaking up subsidiaries into independent entities more compatible with a market economy.

What has really cut into Roh’s support base, however, is the president’s own problems. His three sons are enmeshed in influence-buying scandals, engulfing the Blue House — the seat of power in South Korea — in a cloud of corruption. The president has been forced to resign from the Millennium Democratic party he founded and to temporarily close the Kim Dae Jung Peace Foundation, sapping the party’s strength as well as Kim’s own political standing. Although Roh has distanced himself from these developments, his lead has evaporated with them.

In theory, all this should play into the hands of Lee Hoi Chang, a former judge turned politician. But whether Roh will be “gored” in his effort to succeed Kim — much as former U.S. Vice President Al Gore was after never quite distancing himself from Clinton in his presidential bid — could become clearer in the mid-June local elections.

Roh was forced to share the political spotlight last week with both Park Geun Hye, daughter of late former President Park Chung Hee, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. By flying into Pyongyang, meeting and dining with Kim Jong Il in a visit that had all the trappings of a convivial family get-together, Park clearly bolstered her political standing. The son and daughter of two dictators apparently hit it off just fine; Kim Jong Il again promised to come South without specifying when. If, in the words of former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, “all politics is local,” then in Korea, “all politics is familial” as well.

Having been previously shunted aside by Lee Hoi Chang in the primary contest for president within the GNP, Park is obviously spoiling for a spoiler’s role. She has formed her own political party, Korean Coalition for the Future, which could tip the outcome ultimately in Roh’s favor. (South Korean politics is personality-driven, and new political parties are the rule, not the exception.)

Still to be heard from is the man who engineered her father’s rise to power, former Prime Minister Kim Jong Pil, whose sliver of a political following in the United Liberal Democrats could also prove decisive in a close contest.

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