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THE WORLD

Soccer Chief Seeks Highest Goal for Himself

Asia: Still shining in South Korea's World Cup glory, presidential candidate wows crowds and gives some kick to an otherwise dull race.

September 23, 2002|BARBARA DEMICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — With chants thundering through the auditorium and many in the crowd wearing scarves in the color of their national team, you might be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled into a pep rally for a soccer match.

But no, this was purely politics.

The crowd had packed an auditorium in the South Korean National Assembly building last week to watch Chung Mong Jun declare his candidacy. Chung, the head of the country's soccer association, is trying to parlay the euphoria from South Korea's shining moment in the 2002 World Cup into a bid for the presidency.

Handsome, rich, glib, athletic and youthful by the somewhat geriatric standards of Korean politics--some even call him Kennedyesque--the 50-year-old Chung looks like he just might have a fighting chance in the Dec. 19 contest.

Chung, a scion of the Hyundai dynasty, has the money to compensate for his lack of an established political party. And the public's disgust with politics-as-usual might make the timing right for a candidate whose most notable achievement has been bringing the world's most prestigious soccer event to South Korea.

"To be in politics is like football. You have to be smart enough to understand the game, but dumb enough to think it's important," said Chung, opening a recent speech with a characteristically self-deprecating style of humor borrowed from U.S. politics.

In fact, Chung seems more American than Korean in his political mannerisms. He did his graduate studies at MIT and Johns Hopkins University, speaks fluent English and deftly drops quotes from the Bible, Eugene McCarthy and Martin Luther King Jr. No rank political novice, he has served 15 years in the South Korean national legislature.

But his claim to fame is as a vice president of FIFA, world soccer's governing body, and as head of the Korean association.

"If not for the World Cup, he would be just another rich guy dabbling in politics," said Hahm Sung Deuk, a political scientist at Korea University in Seoul.

The tattered state of the political parties in South Korea has created a window of opportunity for an independent such as Chung. South Korea's lame-duck president, Kim Dae Jung, has been hit by a series of corruption scandals involving his sons, and public anger over the scandals has spilled over to undermine the standing of Kim's protege, human rights lawyer Roh Moo Hyun. Opposition leader Lee Hoi Chang has been hurt among his core conservative constituency by questions over why his sons did not serve in the army.

How Chung would run South Korea remains a mystery. His campaign rhetoric so far has focused almost entirely on reforming the political system, fighting the traditional ways of party politics and diminishing regionalism. But a few offhand comments suggest that he would pursue rapprochement with North Korea even more aggressively than President Kim, the architect of the "sunshine policy" of better relations with the North.

Chung says he was intrigued by a recent suggestion by one of the newspapers here that South Korea dedicate 1% of its national budget to helping North Korea.

"That is a hundred times larger than the current government is providing," he said. "Maybe we can expand humanitarian assistance if it is within the limit of our ability."

When asked by a South Korean journalist if he would not demand more reciprocity from North Korea--a favorite criticism by conservatives of the current government--Chung retorted: "If it's humanitarian aid, you shouldn't be asking them to reciprocate."

To a large extent, Chung's comments about North Korea appear to mirror a passion of his late father's. Chung Ju Yung, who died last year, was born to a peasant family in North Korea and later fled south, where he established the huge Hyundai conglomerate. In his final years, he devoted a large portion of his enormous wealth to helping North Korea.

Under his helm, Hyundai started the first guided tours by South Koreans into the Northern resort of Mt. Kumgang. At one point, he personally delivered hundreds of cows across the DMZ to make amends for a cow he stole when he fled the North at 16.

The elder Chung also made a bid for the presidency--one that ended calamitously for him and for Hyundai. Not only did Chung come in third in the 1992 race, but he was charged and convicted of embezzling $80 million from a unit of Hyundai to fund his campaign. Only by dint of his advanced age and ill health did he avoid going to prison.

The senior Chung's campaign so angered the South Korean establishment that for years afterward Hyundai companies faced difficulties getting bank loans and government contracts.

Today, the legacy of the elder Chung's failed presidential race hangs heavily over his son's bid and may be his biggest political liability. Mindful of what happened in 1992, some unions at Hyundai are threatening to actively oppose the younger Chung's campaign.

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