A vote for the city

On the streets of Seoul, Paul Rodgers finds glitzy electioneers struggling to enthuse a sluggish pub

Most taxis in Seoul bear a sign advertising "free interpretation". Don't believe it. Ask a white-gloved driver to take you to the Namdaemun street market, or Gyeongbokgung, the "Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven", or the new railway terminus, and you will almost certainly be met with polite incomprehension. To help its guests get back after roaming the city, my hotel issued cards with "Please take me to the Shilla" printed in Korean. The destination on the reverse is left blank, to be filled in by a helpful concierge.

Clutching such a card, I headed for the Sejong Centre for the Performing Arts, Seoul's answer to London's Southbank complex. Sejong features two resident philharmonic orchestras, an opera company, a metropolitan theatre company, the National Traditional Dance Company and the biggest pipe organ in Asia. But what attracted me was a chance to see Park Jin, a prominent MP and right-hand man to South Korea's conservative new president, the Grand National Party's Lee Myung-bak. In the elections this month to the Kukhoe (national assembly), Park was locked in a battle with Sohn Hak-kyu for the Jongno-gu seat in central Seoul. Until recently, the two had been in the same party, but after losing to Lee in the GNP's presidential primary, Sohn defected to become chairman of the United Democratic Party, the liberal opposition.

My expedition did not start well. Although Park's campaign HQ had said he would be at Sejong-ro at 7.30pm, I couldn't find so much as a tattered poster advertising the event. An impromptu conference with a ticket clerk, a security guard and an English-speaking concert-goer determined that nothing political was scheduled on the arts centre's computer. Dejected, I sloped off down the main road, Sejong-ro - stopping to look at the plaque commemorating one of Park's heroes, Admiral Yi Sun-sin, whose turtle boats, reportedly the world's first iron-hulled vessels, repelled a Japanese invasion in 1597. Then, deciding to visit Park's headquarters near the US embassy - a prominent landmark, you would think - I started testing the "free interpretation" skills of passing cabbies.

The riot police arrived in six buses with steel-grille-covered windows while I was still hailing taxis. Shortly afterwards, a ragged band of demonstrators passed, each wearing a red bib. Within minutes, the 200-strong group had been whipped into orderly ranks. Marshals handed out sheets of newspaper for the protesters to sit on. Their leader, Kim Sun-yong, inspired them to jump up, sing songs and punch the air in choreographed unison. After his speech, Kim explained that their trade union had been on strike against the British insurance company Allianz for 70 days. At issue were not just pay and conditions, but the workers' right to negotiate through their union at all. The police, despite their heavy presence, were not a problem, he said. Nor, clearly, was morale, despite ten weeks on the picket line.

As the light faded, I moved back down Sejong-ro. A blast of music and PA gabble reached me from behind the arts centre. A small van was pulled up on the pavement at the corner of Sejongmunhwa-gil and Sejongmadang-gil, its side filled with a huge plasma screen showing an animated film. At its back was a platform, like those found on a railway guards' van. I'd found Park at last, conducting a whistle-stop tour. But first, the warm-up act; two dozen cheerleaders, mostly young adults in jeans and T-shirts, performing a dance that verged on a martial art. The audience on the facing corner lapped it up. Park, an Oxford-educated former diplomat in his fifties, joined in the curbside partying - dignity be damned - before mounting the tiny stage and belting out his 30-minute stump speech, interrupted only by passing taxis and the riot-police buses trundling back to base. "The most important issue of this election is the new government's efforts to revive the economy," he explained later in English. "But the opposition is trying to distract attention, to turn it into a referendum on the canal."

With 6 per cent GDP growth, South Korea's economy is booming by any standard except east Asia's. The Great Korea Canal Project, on the other hand, is a hot topic. President Lee officially announced the scheme within days of taking office in late February. The largest canal in the scheme, the 540km Gyeongbu, would connect Seoul's Han River in the north-west with the Nakdong, which runs through Pusan, the country's biggest port, in the south-east.

These two separate watersheds are home to 58 protected species, including birds such as the black-faced spoonbill and the black kite, which critics say will be placed at even greater risk by the project. Constant dredging to keep the channel six metres deep would damage spawning beds and feeding grounds. The plus side is that heavier bulk cargoes will move on 5,000-tonne barges, cutting congestion on the motorways and shaving CO2 emissions.

Environmentalists may have struggled to decide which of the major parties to support in this election. The outgoing president, Roh Moo-hyun, cast himself as a progressive, yet backed the Saemangeum project - a 33km dike reclaiming 400 square kilometres of tidal wetlands and disrupting major bird migration routes.

Park was surprisingly neutral about his leader's scheme. Rather than endorsing the project wholeheartedly, he said that the environmental and economic issues should be looked at in detail - after the election. With that, he headed off down Gongio-gil, an alley lined with small restaurants, to continue his campaigning.

A week later, after I had returned to Britain, Park romped home as his party gained a small majority in the 299-seat parliament, winning 153 seats. His rival Sohn publicly accepted blame for the UDP's poor showing as the party fell from 136 seats to 81. That the GNP's victory wasn't bigger was probably down to infighting.

The results made me think of the last time I saw Park, in one of Gongio-gil's cramped, smoky eateries, shaking hands and posing for pictures. Many of the customers seemed flattered by the attention, but by the door was a more cynical trio. Their leader, who called himself Simon, declared: "I'm not going to vote for him," as the candidate left. And in this he was summing up the national mood; only 46 per cent of South Koreans turned out to vote, a record low.

Paul Rodgers is a freelance science, medicine and technology journalist. He was born in Derby, the son of a science teacher, and emigrated with his family to the Canadian prairies when he was nine. He began writing for a student newspaper in Winnipeg in 1982 and had staff positions on several Canadian dailies. Despite his return to these shores 15 years ago, he still talks with a funny accent.

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Food crisis