With barely a week to go for the presidential elections in South Korea, scheduled for December 19, 2002, presidential candidates have been coming out with their positions on a possible visit by the Dalai Lama.

Both Lee Hoi-chang of the Grand National Party and Roh Moo-hyun of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party, the two leading candidates, have said that they would welcome a visit by the Dalai Lama.

The Korean news agency, Yonhap, reported on December 12 that both Lee and Roh have written to Buddhist Solidarity for Reform (BSR), a Korean organization that had been campaigning for the Dalai Lama’s visit.

In his letter, Lee is quoted as having said, “I will welcome the Dalai Lama, who is respected worldwide, to visit our country to promote the spirit of peace and reconciliation.

Roh said in his letter, “It is not right for the government to link the issue (of Seoul’s economic ties with Beijing) to the visit to Korea by the Dalai Lama.”

Yonhap reported that “Lee would not comment on claims by the Chinese government that the Dalai Lama is a separatist who is trying to instigate anti-Chinese sentiment in Tibet, which is now under Chinese control.”

“That is an internal problem of the Chinese government and it would be inappropriate for me to comment on it,” Lee is quoted as saying.

The Buddhist Solidarity for Reform has said that they will renew their invitation to the Dalai Lama after the presidential elections. Jung Woong-ki, secretary general of the invitation committee, said Korea is suffering from an anemic spiritual disorder. “If the Dalai Lama would visit Korea, his presence would give us an opportunity to revive our spiritual tradition,” the December 12 Korea Herald quotes Jung as saying.

“Since the war, the government and people worked so hard to rebuild city roads and make Korea one of the biggest economies. But they forgot about spirituality. The government has done little to support spirituality,” Jung said.

The controversy surrounding the Korean government’s denial of a visa to the Dalai Lama since 2000 has been a topic of discussion among the Korean public. A survey conducted by JoongAng Ilbo, an English daily published in South Korea, revealed that 90 percent of Buddhists in Korea want the Dalai Lama to come. However, the survey reported they also understood the government’s position and they did not want to stir up trouble with the Chinese.

Park Doo-bok, a professor of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, wrote an op-ed in JoongAng Ilbo on August 29, 2002, in which he referred to the Korean government’s “refusal to approve the Dalai Lama’s visit” as an example of “a more passive position than China” and that “this passivity has played a large part in restraining Korea’s sphere of action in foreign policy.”