The choice of the century for South Korea
Tomorrow, the voters of South Korea will elect their leader for the new century -- someone who will lead them in bidding farewell to the "old-men political era" under the "Three Kims" (Kim Jong-pil, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam) in the latter part of the 20th century, and in marching into the newly arrived century.

This election will necessarily be of real significance to South Korean voters, because they are asked to face up to a historical choice.

This "election of the century" in South Korea has become the center of the world's attention, not only because the two candidates are matched in strength, making it virtually impossible for observers to predict the election outcome. It is also the center of attention because the divergent qualities of the candidates have given the election multiple characteristics.

The election is a battle between "the hardline conservatives" and the "radical reformers;" between "anti-communism" and "communism-tolerance;" between "democratic freedoms" and "nationalism;" between the "pro-US camp" and the "anti-US camp;" and between the "war generation" and the "post-war generation."

In the contest between Kim Dae-jung's successor, Roh Moo-hyun, and the opposition Lee Hoi-chang, who comes out on top is significant not only to the future development of South Korea, but also to the future development of the entire Korean Peninsula and to the power game in the entire Northeast Asian region, affecting even the American strategic set-up in the region.

Five year ago, Kim Dae-jung, who had until then been defeated in every single election in which he participated, finally left behind the nickname "the eternal candidate," became the master of the Blue House and the accomplished the first-ever change of ruling party.

During Kim's administration, the last century passed and the new century arrived, and the country was revived from a devastating financial crisis. Although during the latter part of his term in office Kim's son was jailed for bribery and corruption, Kim's performance still deserves recognition.

Despite the endless boycotts of the opposition majority, the minority government of Kim was able to continue reform efforts, clearing up the remnants of the former military dictatorship, revamping businesses enterprises and conglomerates, opening up mergers by foreign capitalists and reviving economic prosperity.

It hasn't been easy. Kim's "Sunshine Policy" toward the North was premature, creating controversy at home and abroad and casting shame on his Nobel Peace Prize when the South Korean media jeered at him for spending US$500 million to bribe Kim Jong-il into meeting with him.

Still, Kim has indeed been a brave leader who was always looking for breakthroughs.

The challenges faced by the South Korean president of the new century may not be like those of Kim Dae-jung's, such as cleaning up after the financial crisis. But in the next five years, his challenges will be even greater than those of Kim's.

This is because the new leader will have to shoulder a task with unprecedented difficulty, that is, he will be the president facing up to the collapse of North Korea. Whether he has the ability to deal with the chaos and whether he has the sense of mission will also affect the security of South Korea and the destiny of the Korean Peninsula.

Between Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Hoi-chang, who will be more qualified to accept the harsh test of the era? The voters of South Korea will make a wise decision. However, two other key elements will also decide the outcome of the election: the US and North Korea. Their intentions and actions will necessarily affect the election outcome.

For example, two incidents occurred only one week ago: North Korea announced resumption of its nuclear weapons program, and a North Korean cargo ship carrying missiles was intercepted by the Spanish navy. Just exactly how much impact will these incidents have on the voters?

Which candidate will have the advantage? No one dares to say. The "North Wind" has, without exception, blown in previous elections. In other words, in order to gain political advantage, some party always raises the issue of national security in an effort to intimidate voters about the threat North Korea poses to South Korea.

Whether such tactics can still work is something to look out for. North Korea's nuclear gamble was a serious shock to South Korean voters. Some felt sympathetic, while others felt resentful. Therefore, it would be jumping the gun to say that the incident will be more advantageous to Lee, the candidate from the conservative camp.

The US would of course be unwilling to see the election of Roh Moo-hyun, whom it sees as a communist sympathizer and the radical. In fact, it would be a nightmare for the US if he were elected. Not only would he mess up the US' strategic setup in Northeast Asia, the US sanctions against North Korea would also become difficult to implement as a result of the uncooperative attitude of Seoul.

That's why US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage visited Seoul last week -- not only to learn more about the election, but also to negotiate and coordinate with both the ruling and opposition camps.

On the other hand, if Lee wins, his election would seriously upset North Korea. Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine Policy would be officially declared over. The relationship between South and North Korea would once again become tense and polarized, or perhaps even deteriorate.

None of this would be good for neighboring countries. Moreover, in view of South Koreans' inclination to go for "new love," Lee, who was defeated five years ago, is not the favorite to win. His election will depend entirely on whether the "US card" and the "North Wind card" can work this time around.

The rise and fall of the election campaign reflects much more than the unpredictability of the popular will. In fact, the trend of the popular will has changed four times within one year. Only this spring, Roh had a big lead. Two months later Lee caught him up.

After the World Cup in July, the South Korean vice president of FIFA, Chung Mong-joon, enjoyed the highest popular support, far exceeding both Roh and Lee. But by last month, after Cheng and Roh agreed to work together, Roh again became the top contender. Such rapidly changing popular will is truly amazing.

It cannot be denied that both the US and Japan are keeping their fingers crossed that Lee wins.

Last Friday, I met with Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS. This American expert on Northeast Asian affairs appeared confident that Lee would be elected. In the past two months, he has visited Seoul three times. Yet, in the countdown to election day, he has decided to not go back.

Cossa is betting on Lee. I, on the other hand, am betting on Roh. Who will be the winner in the Korean lottery?

The answer will be out by tomorrow night.

Rick Chu (朱立熙) is the editor in chief of the Taipei Times.