SEOUL, South Korea — The pre-election narrative seemed certain to win hearts, minds and votes. An explosion at sea ripped apart a South Korean ship, killing 46 sailors and outraging a nation. An international investigation concluded that a North Korean torpedo had sunk the warship.
With elections near, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak said he would no longer tolerate such brutality. He cut trade links with the government of Kim Jong Il and vowed: "North Korea will pay a price."
But the fervor petered out as quickly as it arose. Voters did not rally round their president in Wednesday's local and regional elections. There was no Korean version of the "9/11 effect" that many had predicted. Instead, Lee's ruling Grand National Party was clobbered, stunned party bosses quit in shame and North Korea pronounced itself pleased.
The election results suggest that many South Koreans, even those who are angry at North Korea for sinking the Cheonan and killing their countrymen, are more concerned about maintaining peace than with teaching Kim a lesson.
In interviews over the past two weeks, many said their desperately poor and heavily armed northern neighbor is too dangerous and too bizarrely governed to challenge overtly.
"There is no winner if war breaks out, hot or cold," said Lim Seung Youl, 27, a clothing distributor in Seoul who voted for the main opposition Democratic Party. "Our nation is richer and smarter than North Korea. We have to use reason over confrontation."
Young voters were especially disenchanted with Lee's tough talk, exit polls show. They voted in unexpectedly high numbers, goading each other with tweets and text messages to get to the polls and casting most of their ballots for the Democratic Party, which questioned North Korea's involvement in sinking the warship and accused Lee's government of rigging the investigation that blamed the North.
The Obama administration praised the inquiry for being professional and convincing.
Most political analysts interpreted the vote as a rebuke to Lee for raising tensions excessively high over the sinking of the warship near a disputed sea border between the two Koreas.
In the streets of Seoul, even the president's supporters said he and his party went too far.
"It was obvious that the government was trying to use the Cheonan politically," said Kim Mee Kyung, 46, a homemaker who voted for the ruling party. "At first all Koreans supported Lee, but then he was too strong. In dealing with North Korea, moderation is best."