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Domestic Issues Dominate Ahead Of South Korean Election


North Korea says it's detained another U.S. citizen. If true, that would mean at least four Americans are in North Korean custody. This comes amid a standoff with Pyongyang over its nuclear program and an election Tuesday in South Korea. NPR's Lauren Frayer joins us now from Seoul.

Hey, Lauren.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So who is this U.S. citizen North Korea says it's detained?

FRAYER: So North Korea says his name is Kim Hak Song and that he worked at a science and technology university in Pyongyang. That's the same school where another American who taught accounting was arrested last month on his way out of the country. Now, North Korea has not said whether the two cases are related, whether the men even know each other. But it says they both committed, quote, "hostile acts." And as you said, it would bring to four, the number of Americans in North Korean custody, these two from this university and two others already serving prison terms with hard labor.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Across the border in South Korea where you are, there's also been a lot of news. Let's talk about that. One president was impeached and is now on trial for corruption. And there's an election Tuesday to replace her. How does the North Korea situation affect South Korea and its politics?

FRAYER: Well, the outgoing president, Park Geun-hye, was a conservative. She took the real hard line against North Korea. She is on trial for corruption, and so she's suffered this sort of fall from grace and so have her politics fallen out of favor with her citizens. The frontrunner to replace her is a liberal who wants to talk with North Korea. His name is Moon Jae-in. He's a human rights lawyer. He wants to revive the so-called Sunshine Policy of dialogue and economic aid to the North. Here's what one voter, Shin Mi-kyung (ph), a 28-year-old software developer, had to say about the frontrunner, Moon.

SHIN MI-KYUNG: Mr. Moon described as a negotiator, and I agree that his opinion for North Korea, and we need to talk and also we need to be careful for them.

FRAYER: So I should point out - you heard she's speaking English. She's relatively young, 28, a professional. And there are older South Koreans who tend to be more conservative, anti-communist, may have lived through the Korean War and the Cold War. And some of them are vehemently opposed to dialogue with the North.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How close is the race?

FRAYER: Moon Jae-in, at last count, had a 20-point lead on his closest contenders, a centrist software developer, also a far-right conservative who calls himself a strong man. But as you know, anything can happen. Those poll numbers are from a week ago, when polls were last allowed to be published. And a week is a long time in politics.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: President Trump said this past week that he'd be honored to meet the North Korean leader. Just briefly - how is that offer going over on the Korean Peninsula?

FRAYER: North Korea hasn't responded, but President Trump is sending mixed messages because he's also said he's considering a pre-emptive military strike on North Korea's nuclear facilities. So Pyongyang may be waiting to figure out what the Trump policy will be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. NPR's Lauren Frayer in Seoul, thank you very much.

FRAYER: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOR AND FRIENDS' "WHOSE FINGERS?") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.