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S. Korean Soccer Chief Drops Candidacy

Times Staff Writer

Chung Mong Jun, the charismatic mogul credited with organizing the World Cup, dropped out of the contest to become South Korea’s next president and pledged to support the candidate of the ruling party.

Dejected and appearing on the verge of tears, Chung announced his decision early today after a specially commissioned poll showed him slightly behind Roh Mu Hyun, a protege of President Kim Dae Jung.

“I will give my full support for [Roh’s] victory in the election,” Chung told supporters in an uncharacteristically terse speech at his campaign headquarters. He and Roh had agreed earlier that the weaker candidate would drop out of the race.

Chung’s withdrawal may give new life to Roh’s flagging campaign and raises hopes for supporters of the South’s “sunshine policy” of engagement with North Korea. Roh, a 55-year-old human rights lawyer, is a leading voice in the liberal political camp in South Korea. If both he and Chung had remained in the race, it was a virtual certainty that conservative Lee Hoi Chang would emerge the victor on election day, Dec. 19.

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The 50-year-old Chung, handsome, multilingual and rich, had added a touch of panache to an otherwise colorless contest. As a vice president of FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, he rose to prominence this year when South Korea co-hosted the World Cup with Japan. An heir to the giant Hyundai conglomerate, which has led the South Korean business community in investing in North Korea, Chung supports continued aid to the impoverished communist state.

The revelation in October that North Korea was violating a pledge not to develop nuclear weapons threw a wrench into the political equations. It tilted the South Korean electorate to the right and put Lee strongly in the lead. Lee, 67, the head of the opposition Grand National Party and a former supreme court justice, finished second behind Kim in the 1997 presidential election. Kim is barred by the constitution from seeking another five-year term.

The most recent poll, taken Sunday by the South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo, showed Lee slightly behind with 37.5% of the vote compared with 41.1% for Roh.

But political analysts said Chung’s withdrawal gave a bounce to Roh’s candidacy that probably cannot be maintained for the three weeks remaining until the election. A minor labor party candidate also is running.

“A lot of it will depend on North Korea’s behavior. If North Korea behaves well in the coming weeks, it will be a big help for Roh,” said Hahm Sung Deuk, a political scientist at Korea University in Seoul.

Lee has been an articulate critic of the sunshine policy, which he says is too indulgent toward North Korea.

Members of the conservative opposition party over the weekend criticized the deal between Roh and Chung as a “dirty political collaboration.”

“Their collaboration is an act of deception for the people,” Lee said Sunday while campaigning in Kwangju.

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Roh dismissed the allegations. In a speech to supporters just after midnight today, he said, “We were able to give people a renewed hope in politics by providing them a chance to witness concession and fair play in politics.”

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Chi Jung Nam of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.


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