( France24 ) - The South Korean presidential election on Wednesday pits a pragmatic, pro-business candidate, Lee Myung-bak, against two contenders who have defined themselves by the key ideological issue of their generation - unification or not - with North Korea.
Lee, 65, has pledged to be the "economy president". A former mayor of Seoul and long-time senior executive at the Hyundai conglomerate, Lee is running on the ticket of the conservative Grand National Party.
A poll published Dec. 11 by the South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo gives Lee 46.3% of the vote.
His closest rivals, with little more than 15%, are Chung Dong-young of the United New Democratic Party and Lee Hoi-chang, who founded the Grand National Party in 1997 but was dropped as its candidate this time around. (The current president, Roh Moo-hyun, is forbidden to run by a constitutional one-term limit.)
Both candidates place relations with North Korea at the centre of their politics. Chung favoured dismantlement of the old guard in South Korea - the elite families and the established business conglomerates - and rapprochement with the North. Lee Hoi-chang, a Korean traditionalist, is deeply sceptical of North Korea's hard-line communist government and any efforts to engage it.
But this year's election does not appear to be based on those issues. "The Korean presidential elections are no longer a choice between democracy and autocracy," says Jim Schoff of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, a Boston-based think tank.
A poll published by the newspaper Hankyoreh indicates that economic management is rated the most important issue, at 43.5%. Employment worries are most important for 17.3% of respondents, followed by social welfare and education. North Korea policy trails far back at 3.2%.
It appears not surprising then that Lee Myung-bak is so far ahead in the polls. Promising to be an "economic president", Lee has vowed to leverage what he considers to be Korea's most important asset - the so-called economic miracle that made one of the world's poorest nations into one of the world's strongest economies.
He brings with him decades of experience as a business leader. At one time, he served as chief executive of Hyundai's construction arm.
In the months preceding the elections, however, his opponents have united in demanding a probe into a possible scandal: He was thought to have orchestrated stock-price manipulation whilst serving at an investment firm, BBK. The issue looked likely to blow over earlier this month when a star witness failed to provide sufficiently damning testimony to make the charges stick.
Then, on Dec. 16, Chung's United New Democratic Party revealed a video clip in which Lee discusses his possible involvement with BBK. Chung's cohorts have been calling for a relaunch of the investigation.
Still, there is little to suggest that this scandal is sufficient to eclipse a 30-point gap in the polls.
This is a far cry from the pattern of South Korean politics in the past, when a lesser scandal might have been enough to cause a fall from grace. In 2002, the parliament shot down then-President Kim Dae-jung's choice for prime minister, Chang Sang, on the basis that her son had been educated in the USA.