SEOUL — A chaotic South Korean presidential campaign shadowed by fears of North Korean nuclear weapons drew to a startling close when a key player withdrew his endorsement of front-runner Roh Moo Hyun just hours before the polls opened today.
The last-minute shock was prompted by a purportedly anti-American remark made by Roh, a labor lawyer and protege of President Kim Dae Jung. At a rally in downtown Seoul on the eve of the election, Roh reportedly said that the United States might start a war with North Korea and that the South would have to intervene.
That remark troubled Chung Mong Jun, a World Cup organizer and former presidential contender himself, whose support had been considered essential to Roh's candidacy.
"Our position is that the United States is our ally and there is no reason that the United States should fight North Korea," said Chung's spokesman, Kim Haeng. "The remark was not appropriate."
Roh, 56, has been vocal in the past in criticizing the Bush administration's hard-line policy toward North Korea and Iraq. There were varying interpretations of what exactly he said at Wednesday's rally, in which he and Chung appeared together.
Some members of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party suggested that Chung was actually more upset that Roh introduced two legislators at the rally as potential future leaders of South Korea, apparently overlooking Chung's own political ambitions.
Chung, a scion of the Hyundai dynasty, dropped out of the race last month in order to support Roh. Former Prime Minister Lee Hoi Chang, the leader of the conservative opposition, had been strongly favored to win before Chung pulled out, but since then, the polls had tipped in Roh's favor.
Lee's party quoted the candidate as saying he wasn't surprised that Chung had withdrawn his support. "Their alliance could never work from the beginning," Lee was quoted as saying.
South Korea's 35 million voters face a choice between two starkly opposing camps in the debate over how to handle North Korea. Lee favors the U.S. approach of suspending aid and dialogue until the North Koreans abandon their nuclear ambitions, while Roh wants to press ahead with the current South Korean government's "sunshine policy" of engagement.