KWANGJU, SOUTH KOREA, DEC. 14 -- Seven years after a bloody and traumatic uprising, Kwangju is once more preparing to take on the government. This time, opposition forces hope victory over the ruling party will come through the ballot box. But if that fails, widespread rioting will likely haunt this city yet again.
From street corner shoeshine men to university professors to office workers, many people here seem ready to hit the streets if ruling party candidate Roh Tae Woo wins the presidential election Wednesday. The popular viewpoint is stark: only massive electoral fraud can stand in the way of a victory by opposition candidates Kim Dae Jung or Kim Young Sam over Roh.
Amid a campaign that has polarized the country, Kwangju may be the place where South Korea's political opposites clash in a potentially violent aftermath to the country's first direct presidential contest since 1971.
"If Roh wins, there will be more than a riot, there will be some kind of rebellion," said Myung Ro Keun, a professor at Chonnam National University in Kwangju and a prominent local opposition figure. "Students, workers and dissidents will all rise up against the government," he said. "If Kim Dae Jung wins, we'll celebrate for him. But if Roh wins, we'll immediately start protesting," Myung vowed.
A local taxi driver was more blunt. Passing by a Roh Tae Woo banner hung across a large boulevard, he cocked his fingers like a gun and made a machine-gun rat-tat-tat sound with his voice. In perhaps the only English slogan he knew, the driver shouted, "Kim Dae Jung, Number One." In other cities, such gallant behavior could be shrugged off as mere bravado. But not in Kwangju.
Kwangju's antipathy toward the ruling party and near-fanatical devotion to Kim Dae Jung is best understood in the context of the decades-long economic discrimination against the southwestern provinces of North and South Cholla, and of the 1980 uprising, when soldiers gunned down hundreds of civilians protesting Chun Doo Hwan's military coup. Kim Dae Jung, who is from the disadvantaged southwest region, was sentenced to death for allegedly masterminding the uprising, but the sentence was later commuted under heavy international pressure.
His civic rights restored after massive protests in June, Kim Dae Jung, who narrowly lost the 1971 presidential race, is now a virtual political deity in Kwangju and the surrounding South Cholla province. He can count on attracting at least 75 percent of the province's vote, experts say. Crowds at his campaign rallies have been much more enthusiastic than the gatherings organized by Kim Young Sam and Roh Tae Woo.
The problem for Kim Dae Jung, though, is that Cholla accounts for only a minority of votes nationwide. Many analysts say that if an opposition candidate wins, it is more likely to be Kim Young Sam, who hails from the larger and wealthier South Kyongsang province.