Supporters of ruling Saenuri Party presidential candidate Park Geun-hye perform during her presidential election campaign in Seoul, South Korea, on Nov. 29, 2012. (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

The race to become South Korea’s next president pits two candidates who have talked on the campaign trail about center-leaning policies. But they arrived at this middle ground by taking nearly opposite paths, one as near-royalty — the daughter of a former president who seized power with a military coup — and the other as an activist who once was jailed for protesting the strongman’s rule.

Although conservative Park
and liberal Moon Jae-in differ on some economic policies, they share similar rhetoric about creating jobs and cracking down on corporate corruption, and they represent a country that is far less divided than usual about its priorities. The debate leading up to the Dec. 19 vote is as much about what the candidates have done as what they say they’ll do once in office.

The race is close: Most polls show Park with a lead of three or four percentage points. Ten percent of voters remain undecided, and Moon could get a slight bump from the endorsement last Thursday of independent Ahn Cheol-soo, a software entrepreneur who reluctantly dropped out of the race last month to avoid splitting the liberal vote.

Voters’ preferences for the top two candidates break by age. Moon, from the Democratic United Party (DUP), leads significantly among voters in their 20s, 30s and 40s, according to a recent poll from the Asan Institute, a Seoul-based think tank. But for those 50 and older, the sentiment flips to Park, whose father, Park Chung-hee, took control of the country 51 years ago. In other words, Park has the support of those who remember her father’s 18-year reign but lacks it from those who don’t.

Park Chung-hee remains one of South Korea’s most divisive figures, somebody whose legacy is still being debated. But older Koreans tend to be sentimental for his reign, remembering it as a time of economic boom and national optimism.

South Korea's presidential candidate Park Geun-Hye of the ruling Saenuri Party attends a campaign in Seoul on December 7, 2012. (LEE JAE-WON/REUTERS)

South Koreans widely agree that Park Chung-hee was an autocrat, but conservatives tend to think of him as a relatively benevolent one — and less corrupt than some of his predecessors. He also pulled the strings for South Korea’s remarkable economic takeoff by channeling bank loans to big businesses and forcing them to export, a means to become internationally competitive.

But Park Chung-hee is controversial because he drew up a constitution allowing himself unlimited six-year terms, won elections with vote-rigging and oversaw violent crackdowns on dissenters, including university students. He was assassinated by an aide in 1979. An earlier North Korea-led assassination attempt, in 1974, missed Park but killed his wife, opening the door for a mourning Park Geun-hye, then 22, to become
de facto first lady.

Park Geun-hye’s aides say they are sensitive about her connection to her father. They sent a memo to the news media this year asking that articles not refer to Park Chung-hee as a “dictator.” On the campaign trail, Park has apologized for some of her father’s actions, including his coup and crackdowns on student protesters.

“These things delayed the political development of the Republic of Korea,” Park Geun-hye said in a heavily publicized remark.

Moon, a former human rights lawyer, was jailed in 1975 for participating in street protests against Park Chung-hee. He was later a chief of staff for President Roh Moo-hyun, a liberal who committed suicide in 2009 amid allegations of corruption after he left office.

Moon has said little recently about his competitor’s family background. In South Korea’s first televised presidential debate last week, he didn’t have to. A third candidate, ultraliberal Lee Jung-hee, admitted at the outset that her goal was not to win the presidency but to castigate Park Geun-hye, whom she called the “first lady of the dictatorial era.”

After the debate, even Moon’s campaign spokesman told South Korean reporters that Lee had been too aggressive, preventing actual debate about policy.

Common ground

Although Moon and Park represent parties that historically have had little overlap, they don’t stand far apart on most issues.

South Korea’s economy is doing relatively well by developed-world standards, with a 3 percent unemployment rate and growth of 2 or 3 percent. But people bemoan a widening income gap between the many in the middle class and the few rich, and the challenges facing well-educated job-seekers entering a stagnant market. They also feel that too little is spent on welfare programs. Park and Moon have made similar pledges for “economic democratization,” but Park has tried recently to edge back toward her conservative
base by cautioning that reform
of the dominant conglomerates shouldn’t come too abruptly.

Foreign policy lags far behind the economy among voters’ priorities, but it took center stage Wednesday, after North Korea’s successful launch of a satellite.

Both Park and Moon described the launch as a violation of U.N. resolutions. Park accused the North of trying to “intervene” in the South Korean election, and Moon criticized the ruling party for its intelligence failures. The blast caught South Korean leaders off guard, and just a day earlier, unnamed military officials had told South Korea’s media that Pyongyang’s rocket was being disassembled for repairs.

But the launch hasn’t changed the broader goals for Park and Moon in dealing with the authoritarian North. Park’s party — traditionally hard-line against Pyongyang — has opened the door to resume some of the cultural and economic exchanges that were cut off by President Lee Myung-bak. But Park also wants North Korea to live up to its denuclearization pledge and apologize for a pair of fatal attacks in 2010. Moon, meanwhile, has said he would quickly seek a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Eun. He’d use dialogue, he said, as a way to promote peaceful coexistence.

“But even Park Geun-hye is promising to initiate a dialogue with North Korea, though something short of having a summit,” said Bong Young-shik, a Korean politics and foreign policy expert at the Asan Institute. “That might be the only difference between her and Moon Jae-in,” Bong said, “but both camps are very aware of the public sentiment that desires dialogue and some minimum level of economic engagement with the North.”

Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.