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SEOUL — In a South Korean presidential race where the front-runner leads by nearly two dozen percentage points, experts say any come-from-behind victories are unlikely in the Dec. 19 election.

The surprise in this election, they say, is what’s missing — virtually any debates about South Korea’s ties to the United States.

“It’s not an issue at all, not even just a bit, nothing,” said Mark Monahan, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Maryland in Seoul. “For the first time, (candidates) do not mention the United States at all.”

U.S. relations — in particular, a proposed Free Trade Agreement signed by both countries and awaiting U.S. congressional approval — have sparked widespread and sometimes violent demonstrations in South Korea this year.

In recent years, so has the U.S. military presence here, particularly after two 13-year-old girls were crushed to death in 2002 by a U.S. military vehicle.

But U.S. plans to cut troops in South Korea and close its bases in and north of Seoul by 2012 have helped ease tensions, Monahan said.

What South Koreans are talking about is the economy. Housing prices have almost doubled in the past five years, Monahan said, and many people are frustrated with what they perceive as low-paying jobs and a growing gap between the rich and poor.

“This election is the economy, nothing but the economy, economy, economy,” Monahan said.

Leading candidate Lee Myung-bak, the former mayor of Seoul and a former chief executive officer at powerhouse Hyundai Engineering and Construction, has the business background that voters are looking for, experts say.

Recent polls show 41 percent to 48 percent of voters favor Lee, compared with the next-closest candidates, each with 17 percent to 18 percent of the vote.

Michael Breen, author of “The Koreans” and president of a public relations company in Seoul, said relations between the U.S. and South Korea likely will improve if Lee wins.

“I think Washington is going to breathe a sigh of relief,” Breen said. “Even if he did want to scale down (U.S.) bases, which I doubt he does, I think Washington would understand what he is doing and be able to talk to him.”

If Lee wins, Breen said, he probably will want to keep a strong U.S. presence here to help the country’s growth, and he probably won’t make significant changes to the military alliances between the two countries.

“I think if anyone’s going to want to reduce the U.S. presence, it’s going to be the U.S.,” he said.

Q&A with canditate

South Korean presidential candidate Lee Myung-bak is expected to win the Dec. 19 election. He responded to questions about the U.S.-Republic of Korea military alliance submitted by Stars and Stripes. The following is a summary of the answers, translated from Korean.

Q: What is your stance on the U.S.-ROK military alliance?

A: The U.S.-ROK military alliance has been taking a significant role in keeping the stability in South Korea and Northeast Asia. This alliance will be keeping going on. We think both nations (South Korea and the U.S.) should expand and develop mutual interests through the alliance in the 21st century.

Q: Do you believe South Korea should take over operational wartime command of its troops in 2012, as agreed upon by current President Roh Moo-hyun?

A: South Korea has to worry about nuclear weapons in North Korea and security in Northeast Asia. Operational wartime command should be transferred to South Korea when it is secure enough to do so. The next Korean administration should review and consult closely with the U.S. on this matter.

Q: What is your stance on the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement?

A: The FTA will allow the U.S. and South Korea to mature in their partnership. Although some people might oppose the FTA, in the long term, it will be a way for both nations to create more wealth and strengthen their economies.

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