Getting their man electedIn 1860, When he was just a presidential hopeful, Abraham Lincoln received a letter from an 11-year-old girl, Grace Bedell. She told him that a beard would make him look more appealing. He took her advice, and soon thereafter took the White House. Thus was born perhaps the first political fan club.
All three of Korea's presidential hopefuls have their own fan clubs, too. With the election coming on Dec. 19, those fans are gearing up for the do-or-die day.
The fan club of the Grand National Party's candidate, Lee Hoi-chang, is Chang-sarang, meaning "Loving Chang." Fans of the Millennium Democratic Party's Roh Moo-hyun belong to Roh-samo, the name of which is derived from an acronym meaning "The gathering for Roh." And fans of Chung Mong-jun of the National Unity 21 party are Mong-samo, or "The gathering for Mong."
Mr. Lee, who has been a Supreme Court judge and the chief of the Bureau of Audit and Inspection, is generally favored by conservatives and people from the Gyeongsang provinces. Mr. Roh is considered a self-made man. Mr. Chung, who has parlayed his stint as the chairman of the World Cup committee into a popular national figure, is the son of the Hyundai founder, the late Chung Ju-yung.
Fans of these political figures do a lot more than write letters to their idols. They serve as the volunteers that every campaign needs.
On a recent Wednesday, the JoongAng Daily met with one aficionados from each of the three fan clubs. All three of them were more than ready to praise their icons and slam the opponents.
He likes Lee Hoi-chang
Yoon Dae-ha says that most people think he would be the last person to follow Lee Hoi-chang. Seated in his wheelchair in his Sanggye-dong apartment, he says with a smile, "My friends bully me for being a Lee enthusiast."
Mr. Lee is considered to be a hardcore conservative supporting the established rights of the upper classes. Mr. Yoon, to the contrary, did not even go to high school (he was too sick), and had to study on his own to pass the high school graduation exam. "But I think the only thing that matters is how competent a candidate is," he says, "which made me choose Mr. Lee."
Mr. Yoon, 26 and a freelance Web designer, joined Chang-sarang last July, after months of ruminating over which candidate was the fittest to lead the country. Mr. Yoon did not like the idea of the "Roh syndrome." "I think Roh enthusiasts are only swept by their emotions, without cool judgment," he says. "Electors need to be more patient and reasonable."
Mr. Yoon says he made the "biggest mistake of his life" in the last general election, in 1997. He voted for the upstart, third-party candidate Rhee In-je; Mr. Rhee ended up splitting the conservative vote with Lee Hoi-chang, allowing Kim Dae-jung to win the election. "Rhee In-je looked young, and he was a new political inspiration to me," he says. "It is the same thing that's happening to Roh enthusiasts today."
Mr. Yoon considers the progressiveness of the Roh side unstable, and prefers the stability the conservative Mr. Lee represents. "This country needs more of a sense of security than an abrupt change," he says.
Mr. Yoon says he thinks highly of Mr. Lee because Mr. Lee is open to variety of opinions, from the experience of being a judge. "Lee is the only candidate whose experience evenly covers the three branches of government ?legislative, administrative and judicial. What more do you want?"
Recently, Mr. Lee's wife, Han In-ok, made a gaffe by telling reporters, "Whatever happens, we should come to power." That didn't bother Mr. Yoon. "I heard that was at some informal event," he says. "She must have said it as a joke."
Like Ms. Bedell of 1860, Mr. Yoon has suggestions for his presidential hopeful. "Lee has this image of being too hardcore conservative and rigid, like the judge he used to be," he says. "He needs to make his image friendly by smiling more and wearing more casual clothes, rather than suits." Citing how John F. Kennedy made use of television, Mr. Yoon thinks Mr. Lee should use the Internet. "I really want him to play StarCraft, the computer game, with a group of young people," he says.
Mr. Yoon has yet to meet Mr. Lee in person. "He's just too busy to show up at every get-together of Chang-sarang," he says.
Mr. Yoon is soft on the other two candiates. "Both of them are good as individuals, he says. "But what makes a good president is your grasp of human nature."
Lee Hoi-chang (born in 1935, native of Chungcheong province)
Education: Gyeonggi High School, Seoul National University, Harvard University
Career: Judge, chairman of the Board of Audit and Inspection, prime minister, lawyer
Sacrificing for Roh Moo-hyun
Kim Yeong-bu is an English teacher, but his business card does not say he is. Instead, it boldly says "Public hands building a world worth living in," the logo of Roh-samo. Mr. Kim stopped working at his private institution to volunteer full time for the fan club and work out of its main office in Yeouido, Seoul.
Mr. Kim, 41, says he's only one of myriad Roh loyalists all over the country. Indeed, it's easy to find volunteers like him who have quit working to campaign full time.
The club is famed for its camaraderie. Last Tuesday, they collected 1.3 billion won for Mr. Roh's campaign by asking their members to empty their piggy banks of coins. That was Mr. Kim's idea. "A politician is supposed to be in debt to those who contributed money to help him get elected," Mr. Kim says. "We, the public, wanted to warn Roh that as president he will always be in debt to the people."
Mr. Roh's fan club is bigger than the other candidates' clubs, with more than 60,000 members. Established in 1999, it also takes pride in being the first fan club for a politician in Korea. Mr. Kim was one of the founding members. In 1999, Mr. Roh ran for a National Assembly seat in South Gyeongsang province as a candidate for the Millennium Democratic Party, which is based in Jeolla province. Despite being a Busan native, which gave him an edge, Mr. Roh lost. The result stirred up a heated debate on the Internet about voting along regional lines. That led to the establishment of the fan club, in an Internet cafe in Daejeon, North Chungcheong province. "Mr. Roh came all the way down to the place on a train and had a humble lunch of gimbap," Mr. Kim says. "That was the first time I saw his face."
Mr. Kim, a native of the South Jeolla province capital of Gwangju, says that Roh's determination to abolish regional sentiment was what "especially touched me deep in the heart." Mr. Kim calls his idol "Roh-jjang," which means "Roh the best" in teenage slang. "Roh is the only hope we have to realize balanced development for all of the provinces," Mr. Kim says. But what drew him to Roh was more his humanity than his policies, he says. "There are things that need mending in Roh's policies, but his nature fits perfectly to lead the nation."
When it comes to the other two candidates, the big smile Mr. Kim usually wears disappears. "Mr. Lee is just an elite with vested rights," he says. "He doesn't understand that five people in a poor household sleep in one room, and that shows how inadequate he is to be the president. When it comes to Mr. Chung, he cranks up the vitriol: "At least Mr. Lee knows how to be a politician, as the leader of the opposition Grand National Party. Mr. Chung's only a big soccer fan, and the crown prince of a conglomerate without any flexibility. What does he know about politics?"
Mr. Kim says he will forever remain a Roh devotee. "The members of Roh-samo are giving the people of Korea a chance to make the world better," he says with a determined look. "I'm proud to be one of them."
Roh Moo-hyun (born in Jinyeong, South Gyeongsang province, 1946)
Education: Busan Business High School, passed state law exam
Career: Judge, human-rights lawyer,
She says Chung's the one
Seo Jeong-sun was on an airplane when she had her first encounter with Chung Mong-jun. It was three years ago, and Ms. Seo was on a domestic flight and on her way to visit her daughter; she was seated in business class, because she is handicapped, and noticed a son of the tycoon Chung Ju-yung boarding the plane. She stood up right away, because she had always respected the elder Chung for building up the national economy. Then came the surprise -- Chung Mong-jun gave her a deep bow. "He was just so self-effacing, you know, not at all like the prince of a conglomerate," she explains.
Since then, Ms. Seo, now 57, began to clip articles about Mr. Chung junior. She was happy when he announced he would run for president. She joined the fan club Mong-samo in July. The club has 6,000 members, fewer than the other candidates', but Mr. Chung has other fan clubs as well. Ms. Seo met Mr. Chung at one of the club's get-togethers, and was overjoyed when Mr. Chung said he remembered her.
She lives alone in her apartment in Bongcheon-dong, southern Seoul; her husband is hospitalized with an ailment related to the time he served in the Vietnam War. Ms. Seo's handicap came after she was hit by a car in 1992.
Seated in her room with her Chung Mong-jun scrapbook, Ms. Seo proudly says that she dreamed the other night about Mr. Chung becoming president. A Gwangju native, Ms. Seo says she has seen enough of old politicians going bad. "Mr. Chung, by contrast, has a clean record as a politician, which means to me that he has a lot of potential," she says. "The reason Kim Dae-jung failed as a president despite being a great individual was that he had too many debts. He had to engage in wrongdoing to take care of his benefactors from the hard times." That will never happen to Mr. Chung, she says.
What has also impressed Ms. Seo a great deal is Mr. Chung's fluency in foreign languages, which he displayed during the World Cup this summer. "The 21st century needs a leader who's good at diplomatic skills, which both Mr. Lee nor Mr. Roh lack," she says.
Mr. Chung is the target of criticism that he is a crown prince of a conglomerate and that he is greedy. Ms. Seo says she thinks otherwise. "Mr. Chung would never betray people for money," she says. "Because he already has enough money, that will let him concentrate solely on politics."
Ms. Seo gets serious when it comes to Mr. Lee and especially Mr. Roh. "Mr. Roh is simply a man of poor caliber, and I don't understand how the emotionally-blind public does not see that." She dismisses Mr. Lee as an "old-school politician from the rotten legal circles."
"This country needs a big change," she says. "Chung is the only one who can do the job. I have complete faith in him."
Chung Mong-jun (born in Busan, 1951)
Education: Seoul National University,
M.B.A. at MIT, Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins
Career: adviser of Hyundai Heavy Industries, assemblyman, chairman of the Korean organizational committee for the World Cup
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