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(News Focus) Wind of animosity gusts across peninsula, swinging S. Korean voters
By Sam Kim
SEOUL, May 28 (Yonhap) -- Firestorms whipped up by heavy artillery and bombings may have ended in 1953 when a truce was signed to stop the three-year Korean War, but the gusts of hostility and mistrust still linger, no more distinctively than during politically sensitive seasons.

   The reality of a peninsula still technically at war has set in firmly among voters here this year, as North Korea was found by a multinational team of investigators to have sunken a South Korean warship near the Yellow Sea border in March, killing 46 seamen.

   North Korea denies responsibility, but over 70 percent of South Koreans surveyed this month said they trusted the veracity of the investigation, a factor that weighs heavily as 10,000 candidates are set to run in the local elections on Wednesday.

   The conservative ruling Grand National Party (GNP), betting high stakes on the mayoral and gubernatorial polls, has pledged not to exploit the tension, but few doubt it will sway the minds of voters.

   Military tensions between the Koreas are running high, and South Korean voters have historically swung to the right when the threat of their northern communist neighbor cropped up prominently.

   "All other agenda have been buried under the Cheonan sinking," Kim Seong-joo, a political science professor at Seoul's Sungkyunkwan University, said, estimating the conservative bloc would enjoy an increase of up to 5 percent in votes.

   Media and scholars have traditionally referred to the influence of North Korean threats on the South Korean political landscape as the "North Wind."

   The wind is the strongest in at least a decade as Pyongyang threatens an "all-out war" if it is punished for the sinking, which occurred just several months after its intruding naval boat was repelled by the South Korean Navy in the Yellow Sea.

   On Friday, a day after South Korea staged an anti-submarine drill off its west coast in a show of force, South Korean officials said their top commanders will hold a special meeting over the weekend to discuss ways to deter North Korean aggression.

   The main opposition Democratic Party (DP) is worried the sinking is working against its odds of gaining a stronger foothold in the government, which it slams for bulldozing through costly projects.

   But it has also taken on the challenge in a fashion that takes the simmering tension into account -- by bolstering its pacifist image.

   A placard in downtown Seoul that calls for support for the top DP figure sums it up. "If you don't want war, then," it reads, showing the smiling portrait of Han Myung-sook, the former prime minister, although it was unclear what role a city mayor can play in national security.

   Analysts said the liberal party mishandled the Cheonan sinking by prematurely downplaying chances of North Korea's involvement when it could have dealt a blow to the government by condemning its failure to detect a submarine and prevent the tragedy.

   "It's too late to do that now," Jung Chan-soo, an analyst at the Min political research group in Seoul, said. "For that, the DP will suffer more while the GNP will win the liberal voters who believe the North attacked."

   He declined to give his estimate on how many more votes the GNP would gain amid the tension, but expected President Lee Myung-bak, halfway through his tenure, to get a clear boost when his party consolidates its grip on power through the elections.

   About 4,000 seats for administrators and legislators are up for grab in the elections.

   The current DP leadership is considered to share similar ideology with former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, who committed suicide a year ago amid a tightening graft probe involving his family. The ties between the Koreas thawed noticeably in the decade ending in early 2008 when he stepped down.

   Embracing the criticism that Roh and his liberal predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, were too soft on North Korea's nuclear ambitions, President Lee took a harder approach on Pyongyang, which declared this week the end of all ties with the South Korean government.

   samkim@yna.co.kr
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