South Korean president-elect Kim Young-sam (L) shakes hands with outgoing president Roh Tae-woo (R) on February 25, 1993, at the Blue House in Seoul. Photo: AFP / Kim Jae-hwan

Newly declassified US intelligence reports that were originally submitted during South Korea’s 1987 presidential election campaign have confirmed that – as was widely suspected at the time – the military-backed ruling party considered using “black propaganda and dirty tricks” against the opposition, the South China Morning Post reported.

However, “it is unclear to what extent the ruling camp followed through on its plans to cheat in the election,” the newspaper concluded in its weekend report, saying it had obtained the reports through a Freedom of Information Act filing.

As the election turned out, ruling party candidate Roh Tae-woo, who’d been chosen by dictator Chun Doo-hwan, won handily thanks to a split opposition. He drew 37% of the vote as against 28% and 27% for Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, respectively. Each of the two Kims had refused to withdraw in favor of the other.

In the end – this reporter covered it – the election was generally viewed as having been honestly conducted. While dirty tricks would not have surprised anyone at the time, evidence that the former generals had employed them failed to materialize in any major way.

“The election was widely accepted as legitimate by the South Korean public at the time due to the size of Roh’s win,” SCMP reported, “and came to be seen as the start of the country’s democratic era. Although opposition figures leveled accusations of cheating at the time, international election monitors did not report widespread irregularities.”

Lynn Turk, at the time a Seoul-based US State Department foreign service officer, watched the campaign and the election closely on a moment-to-moment basis.

“As to what the plan was if Chun concluded Roh wasn’t going to win, and how that conclusion was to be reached,” Turk said in an email to Asia Times on Sunday, “that’s a very interesting story.” In the end, though, “the votes were counted fairly and Roh really did win ‘fair and square.’”

Turk elaborated: “On election night each of the four parties had observers at each polling place and got a carbon copy of the public hand-counted vote. So the totals their command posts registered matched the official count.”

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