SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean opinion polls suggest that the fall of Park Geun-hye, the country's ousted, jailed president now awaiting a corruption trial, has doomed conservatives in next week's presidential election.
An outspoken former governor, who touts himself as a "strongman," looks to win an upset in next Tuesday's election — and lift conservatives from a freefall.
The emergence of Hong Joon-pyo, 62, who represents Park's Liberty Korea Party, is perhaps the most surprising development of the two-month presidential race following Park's removal in March.
His rise shows that despite the street protests by millions that triggered Park's ouster, South Korea remains deeply split over its future, something that will likely hamper whoever becomes its next leader.
Hong, formerly the governor of South Gyeongsang Province, has been trying to ride the public's growing fear over North Korea's nuclear weapons and missiles. He also says he can hold his own against other "nationalist" leaders in Washington, Tokyo and Beijing.
Hong calls for the United States to bring back tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea after withdrawing such weapons in the 1990s, and also promises to create a marine special operations force capable of infiltrating North Korea and removing its leadership in the event of war.
He talks about holding a summit with President Donald Trump on the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier the U.S. recently sent to Korean waters in a show of force against North Korea.
He also wants to revive death penalties for those convicted of heinous crimes, although South Korea hasn't executed anyone since 1997.
Recent polls have measured Hong's support in the mid-to-high teens, still far behind liberal front-runner Moon Jae-in, whose support is in the high 30s. But Hong has cut into the second-place status of centrist Ahn Cheol-soo, whose support was around 20 percent, a troubling sign for Ahn's hopes to absorb conservative voters disappointed with Park.
Hong's supporters see a rare conservative candidate who can appeal to low-income voters. They point to his straight-talking style and campaign promises to create jobs for young people and help poor families and the elderly.
His critics view him as an obnoxious throwback to an era where conservative politicians launched McCarthyist attacks on liberal rivals to win elections. Hong is also undergoing a trial over allegations that he received around 100 million won ($88,000) in bribes from a businessman who committed suicide in 2015.
Hong has called Moon a "North Korea sympathizing leftist" who is "trying to be friends" with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un. One of Hong's campaign offices recently uploaded on social media a ballot sheet where the names of Moon and Ahn were replaced with North Korean flags, prompting Ahn's office to file a complaint with the National Election Commission.
Female voters have also expressed anger over revelations in a 2005 memoir that Hong assisted a friend in a failed rape attempt as a teen. This involved mixing the woman's drink with livestock stimulant, according to what he wrote.
He also enraged the country's persecuted sexual minority groups by telling a television debate that AIDS is "thriving" in South Korea because of homosexuality.
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