South Koreans go to the polls on December 19 to choose a new president for a nation bedevilled by the old issue of corruption in politics and deeply divided on how to proceed in making peace with the communist North. The polls also mark the end of an era in South Korea's evolution towards a broader-based government with the so-called Three Kims, who have long dominated the nation's politics, making their exit from the scene. President Kim Dae-jung is barred from running for another term under the constitution, and former president Kim Young-sam, who took credit for purging military elements from South Korean society, no longer wields enough influence to make a difference to election results. Meanwhile, the last of the Three Kims, former premier Kim Jong-pil, who presided over South Korea's spectacular economic development under the military regime of Park Chung-hee, was so severely defeated in the local government elections in June that he is not expected to make a significant political comeback. So as the old guards bow out, South Korea's next president must tackle the twin challenges of pushing ahead with economic and political reform and ensuring peaceful relations with the North. Issues debated in the campaign so far are mostly the familiar themes of rooting out corruption, imposing limits on presidential power, and pushing through economic reform without damaging the competitiveness of the big industrial conglomerates. New issues such as leadership and policy vision have received relatively little attention. The election is a four-way race, pitting conservatives Lee Hoi-chang, 67, of the Grand National Party, and independent Chung Mong-joon, 51, against centre-left standard-bearers like Roh Moo-hyun, 56, from the pro-government Millennium Democratic Party and Kwon Young-ghil, 61, from the radical Democratic Labor Party. Mr Lee and Mr Chung take a pro-business stance, calling on the government to stop interfering with the corporate restructuring drive and taking a more cautious approach on the subject of aid to North Korea. Mr Roh and Mr Kwon are competing for attention with platforms that seek closer relations with the North, a stronger regulatory regime over big business, and more welfare spending. The most pressing issue is corruption among the power elite, a problem that has intensified under President Kim Dae-jung's administration. While Mr Kim has been preoccupied with improving relations with the North, he has all but ignored domestic issues such as regionalism and cronyism in government appointments. Related reforms, such as curbing money politics, have been put on hold because Mr Kim has filled key posts in the administration and government-run enterprises with people from the Cholla region in the southwest, his political base. Regionalism, which he has described throughout his political career as 'evil', has grown worse under his leadership, critics say. Corruption involving Mr Kim's family and close aides has grown to alarming proportions. All three sons of Mr Kim have been tarred by allegations of influence-peddling and bribe-taking. Two have been detained and are attending court hearings. 'The most crippling problems afflicting the core of the political system in Korea are a venal electoral system and corruption involving the power elite,' says Choe Byung-yul, a journalist-turned legislator from the principal opposition Grand National Party. At a recent seminar, Mr Choe said it would take as much as five billion won (about HK$31.7 million) to successfully campaign for a national parliamentary seat, which is filled once in four years. He added that if electoral improprieties were vigorously pursued, few of the 273 sitting members of the National Assembly would emerge unscathed. So far, none of the four candidates has submitted a clear policy idea on how better to deal with the problem of corruption. Nor is the debate on future North Korean policy becoming any clearer. Mr Lee says aid to the North should be tied to concessions on reducing military tension, while warning against having President Kim Jong-il visit Seoul before the election to boost the chances of Mr Roh's centre-left platforms. But Mr Roh's fortune is already waning as the popularity of the South's Mr Kim plummets. Recent polls show him lagging Mr Lee and Mr Chung by considerable margins. Mr Roh's tepid showing in opinion surveys has triggered demands within the MDP that he be dumped in favour of Mr Chung, whose high rating rests on his being Korea's Mr Soccer, as president of the Korean Football Federation and vice-president of the Federation of International Football Association. Besides being the scion of the vast Hyundai business group, Mr Chung has gained national prominence with his management of the World Cup in June, in which South Korea stunned the world by advancing to the semi-finals. Should Mr Lee's ratings fall, especially over allegations that his two sons dodged military draft through bribes, Mr Chung could well win the race, barring a near-miraculous comeback by Mr Roh. In that event, Seoul's policy on the North could turn to the right, strengthening the voice of conservatives calling for a tougher response to Pyongyang's foot-dragging on arms control and other tension-reducing initiatives. Whoever wins, the next government will have a challenging time sustaining the pace of rapprochement with the North and the momentum of corporate restructuring.