Former Prime Minister Lee Hoi Chang won the presidential nomination of the ruling New Korea Party on Monday, making the man dubbed "Mr. Clean" the leading contender to become South Korea's next president.
Lee, 62, quickly called for unity within his party and the country, and he expressed hope that reunification with Communist North Korea might not be far away.
"We have changed from an agricultural nation to an industrialized country, from a military dictatorship to a democratic state," Lee declared. "[But] we have many legacies still to shed off. . . . We must not allow ourselves to be divided by regionalism, class and ideology."
After leading the first round of balloting among six candidates, Lee clinched victory hours later by taking 60% of the 11,544 delegates' votes in a runoff with Rhee In Je, 48, a provincial governor.
Lee's key opponent in the Dec. 18 presidential election is expected to be longtime opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, 73, nominee of the National Congress for New Politics. Kim's strength is based in the southwestern Cholla area, which has long felt victimized by regional discrimination.
President Kim Young Sam is constitutionally limited to one five-year term, which ends in February.
In a nation plagued by a seemingly endless string of corruption scandals, which have politically crippled the once popular president, Lee stands out with a reputation for integrity.
"Originally, his popularity shot up in 1994, after he [lost] the premiership because of disagreements with President Kim," said Han Sung Joo, a political science professor at Korea University who served as foreign minister under Lee. "He is seen as an upright person. He's seen as very honest and almost a disciplined person to a fault, so I think he's seen as different from ordinary politicians, with whom people are a little disappointed."
A former chief justice of the Supreme Court, Lee joined Kim's administration in 1993 as head of the government's audit and inspection office. In that post, he spearheaded an anti-corruption campaign that earned him the nicknames "Mr. Clean" and "Bamboo Pole"--the latter for what many saw as his rigid adherence to high ethical standards.
Lee then served briefly as prime minister, leaving that post in 1994 because he felt Kim had left him out of important decisions regarding relations with North Korea.
In March, the president--battered by corruption scandals surrounding the January collapse of Hanbo Iron & Steel Co. with debts of nearly $6 billion--reached out to Lee for help refurbishing the government's image by nominating him as chairman of the ruling party, a post Lee won by a unanimous vote of the party's central committee.
At first, Kim's action appeared to anoint Lee as his heir apparent. But Kim later encouraged other candidates to enter the presidential nomination contest in what was widely interpreted as a bid to avoid lame-duck status by keeping the final result uncertain until the president threw his weight behind one of the contenders.
Kim succeeded in throwing the race wide open--but then lost control of the process. Most observers believe that his first choice for a successor would have been former Prime Minister Lee Soo Sung, though Kim chose not to publicly express any preference.
In turning to a fresh candidate with a clean reputation at a time when an unpopular president is mired in scandal, the ruling party is repeating a pattern seen before.
In 1987, former general turned President Chun Doo Hwan was targeted by violent and widely supported student-led protests demanding democracy. Ruling-party nominee Roh Tae Woo, a former general who went on to serve as president from 1988 to 1993, won a degree of popular favor by agreeing to a democratic constitution and free elections.
Then in 1992, Kim Young Sam, who spent most of his career as an opposition leader struggling for democracy, won the nomination after merging his party into the ruling camp.
In late 1995, Kim turned against predecessors Chun and Roh. The two former generals were jailed on bribery, mutiny and treason charges, based on their huge political slush funds and the events that brought Chun to power in a 1980 coup. They were convicted, with Chun initially sentenced to death and Roh to 22 1/2 years imprisonment. Those sentences were later reduced to life for Chun and 17 years for Roh.
Kim's own popularity has plummeted in recent months, due to the Hanbo scandal and the arrest in May of his second son, Kim Hyon Chol, 37, on charges of bribery and tax evasion. Critics also have charged that his 1992 presidential campaign spent about $360 million--far more than the legal limit, and 10 times more than officially reported.
Some analysts say that one reason for Kim's lack of full support for Lee Hoi Chang may be that he fears that Lee would permit a criminal investigation of the 1992 campaign funding controversy. Some of Kim's critics say that could land him in the same kind of trouble that he brought down on his predecessors.
But Lee has stressed that he is not interested in pursuing these issues. "It is my conviction that so-called political retaliation should be terminated," Lee declared last month in the opening speech of his campaign. "We have to create large-minded politics . . . because the politics of liquidating past leaders is wasting the nation's energy."
Such comments have contributed to speculation that Kim may soon pardon Chun and Roh, perhaps at Lee's recommendation to fit the candidate's push for national reconciliation. The Korea Times, quoting unnamed sources, reported Monday that freedom for the former presidents might come as soon as Aug. 15, South Korea's National Day, which is traditionally marked with amnesties.
Chi Jung Nam of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.