SUNGNAM CITY, SOUTH KOREA, DEC. 17 (THURSDAY) -- Kim Kil Nam, 40, walked out of the senior citizens' center in this working class neighborhood yesterday and explained why he had voted for Roh Tae Woo: stability and the status quo.
"I voted for the man who can handle the Olympics well," Kim said. "Whenever the situation becomes confused, business is no good. So I worry about confusion."
Kim, who runs a small food shop, voted in what the Koreans call a "moon village" -- a slum or poor neighborhood built on the top of a desolate hill, seemingly closer to the moon than to the amenities of the city below. The residents of this neighborhood were the voters that populist Kim Dae Jung wanted to reach when he promised a fairer distribution of wealth.
But Kim Kil Nam and millions of voters like him apparently decided yesterday that opposition leader Kim Dae Jung was too much of a risk. Although life remains difficult for many Koreans, even most of the poor have come a long way from the hungry days of 20 and 30 years ago.
Many voters feared that an opposition victory would unleash a wave of demands from workers, farmers and other special interest groups that would threaten the nation's economy as it teeters on the edge of modern prosperity.
"I think there will be some noise from the students if Roh wins," Kim Kil Nam said. "But I don't think student noise is real trouble. What I worry about is labor trouble; if that comes out, business would really be damaged."
The Olympic games, scheduled to take place in Seoul next September, also appeared to work in Roh's favor. Many Koreans view the successful staging of the games as Seoul's coming-out into the world, and they did not want to risk failure by installing a new administration.
"We have to wisely get past the Olympics," said Shim Jae Cheul, 53, a worker with the Korea Electric Co. "After that, maybe we can make another change."
Shim was speaking after he voted in an elementary school in the village of Chungbu-myon in Kyonggi province south of Seoul.
With a black coal-fired stove heating the classroom where voting took place, a well in the schoolyard and the brown frozen stubble of rice paddies across the way, the village scene might have changed little since South Korea's last election in 1971. But a superhighway arcing over the valley also reminded voters of the prosperity that the ruling party has brought to South Korea's rural areas.
The scene also offered a reminder of the organizational power that helped the ruling party, which claimed to have expanded its membership from 2 million to 6 million during the campaign. The Women's Association of the government's rural movement passed out coffee at the poll, while other party volunteers drove supporters to vote.
Many conservative voters in this village said they feared the aftermath of the election, no matter who wins. But they decided in many cases that Roh stood the best chance of warding off anarchy and the North Koreans as the nation moves toward democracy.
"For sure, there will be more freedom, there will be more demonstrations and more rallies," Shim said. "In a sense there will be no way to block it, so we're in for a noisy time."
As if to confirm Shim's prediction, thousands of students converged on vote-counting places last night and this morning demanding a fair count, which they said could not possibly yield a Roh victory.
Outside a girls' high school in the working-class Seoul neighborhood of Yondongpo last night, hundreds of students faced off against black-helmeted riot police in a confrontration over which observers could enter the counting hall.
After more than an hour, a compromise was reached and both soldiers and students withdrew. But a Yonsei University student promised that the withdrawal would not end the war.
"Even if Roh gets elected fairly by the numbers, the people will not accept it," the student said. "He is a vampire, he sucks the people's blood. If Roh Tae Woo wins tonight, tomorrow we begin our struggle."