South Korean presidential hopefuls begin official campaigns

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Candidates for South Korea’s presidential election began on Tuesday their formal campaigns in a race tainted by intense political strife over allegations involving the main candidates and their families.

Liberal governing party candidate Lee Jae-myung and his conservative opposition rival Yoon Suk Yeol are the front-runners of the 14 candidates registered with South Korea’s election authorities. Recent opinion surveys show them running neck-and-neck.

The March 9 vote comes as South Korea faces a range of critical issues such as an economy hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, an advanced North Korean nuclear program and an intensifying rivalry between the U.S. and China.

In his first outdoor rally in Seoul on Tuesday, Yoon highlighted issues of national security, alongside vows to support small business owners and resolve soaring housing prices.

“I’ll sternly respond to North Korean nuclear and missile threats and other provocations to protect the lives and safety of our citizens,” Yoon told a cheering crowd shouting his name.

Yoon, a former prosecutor, has said he plans to bolster South Korea’s military alliance with the U.S. to neutralize North Korean nuclear threats.

Rival Lee travelled to the southeastern port city of Busan, where he promised to build up South Korea’s economy and address internal divides.

“I’d become an ‘economic’ president who makes the Republic of Korea among the G-5 or the top five powerful nations,” Lee told his supporters, adding that he would be “a president who pulls together public opinions as one.”

A former provincial governor, Lee has said he favors pragmatic diplomacy between Washington and Beijing and improved ties with North Korea.

Both Lee and Yoon have been criticized as lacking clear, long-term strategies to handle both domestic and regional challenges while instead focusing on negative campaigns to attack each other.

Lee has faced an allegation that he was involved in a dubious property development project launched when he was a city mayor. His wife recently apologized over allegations that she had civil servants do her personal errands. Yoon, for his part, has faced an allegation that he resorted to shamanism, while his wife apologized for allegedly exaggerating and falsifying her professional careers.

The winner of the election is to be inaugurated as South Korea’s next president on May 10 for a single five-year term. Current President Moon Jae-in is barred by law from seeking reelection.

During the 22-day official campaign period, the presidential candidates and their election campaigners can deliver speeches at public places, run campaign ads via newspapers, TV and internet, and send text messages and emails to voters, according to the National Election Commission.

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