April 18, 2017 4:30 am JST

South Korean election campaign focuses on jobs, inequality

Two presidential front-runners take similar positions as campaigns kick off

SOTARO SUZUKI, Nikkei staff writer

SEOUL -- As South Korea's presidential race got underway Monday, both front-runners laid out similar approaches to economic policy, focusing on tackling the country's widening income inequality and youth unemployment.

Democratic Party of Korea candidate Moon Jae-in gave his first speech of the campaign in Daegu, the hometown of ousted President Park Geun-hye. The conservative stronghold is not fertile ground for the left-

leaning candidate, who lost to Park there in the 2012 presidential election. The decision to launch this year's campaign in Daegu is meant to send a message that Moon will "overcome regional antagonism and become a president supported by the entire country," a Democratic Party source said.

Ahn Cheol-soo of the centrist People's Party chose to deliver his first address at Gwanghwamun Square in downtown Seoul, the site of massive rallies calling for Park's impeachment over allegations of influence-peddling by her longtime confidante.

Ahn, an entrepreneur, won fervent youth support in the 2012 election as a breath of fresh air. Now he attracts conservatives put off by the progressive Moon, and his support base skews older, with many in their 50s and 60s. Ahn hopes to win back young voters, vowing to "carry out the reforms that the people demand, without fail." The election is slated for May 9.

South Korea's economic growth has been mired in the 2% range for four straight years. Unemployment among those aged 15-29 reached a record 9.8% last year. Small and midsize companies pay employees just half as much as do Samsung and other giants, breeding frustration over widening inequality. This fueled public ire at Park over suspicions of collusion with the big conglomerates known as chaebol, claims that led to her removal.

The platforms of both leading candidates reflect this atmosphere. Moon unveiled a 100-day plan for employment Monday and vowed to make job creation his top priority. Ahn stressed the idea of a so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, with smaller enterprises and startups to lead the way.

Chaebol reform is another shared theme. Moon advocates giving labor a say in management, focusing on the four biggest chaebol: Samsung, Hyundai Motor, SK Group and LG. Ahn proposes strengthening the Korea Fair Trade Commission to ensure tighter oversight of chaebol monopolies and oligopolies.

The two candidates offer broadly similar economic policies. The biggest difference is that Moon stresses government action, such as increasing public-sector employment, while Ahn calls for the private sector to take the lead.

This lack of daylight on policy has spurred the two camps to go negative. Moon and Ahn have been attacked over allegations involving family members, which both have denied.

Polling by local media generally shows the two candidates roughly even or a slight edge for Moon. A survey in the Monday edition of the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper put Moon's support at 38.5% compared with 37.3% for Ahn, while the Chosun Ilbo showed Moon leading Ahn 36.3% to 31%.

South Gyeongsang Province Gov. Hong Joon-pyo of the conservative Liberty Korea Party -- formerly the Saenuri Party -- has trailed far behind, along with Yoo Seong-min of the splinter conservative Bareun Party and Sim Sang-jung of the minor progressive Justice Party.

 

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