April 4, 2017 2:44 am JST

South Korean presidential front-runner sets bold liberal agenda

Moon Jae-in handily wins nomination of leading opposition party

SOTARO SUZUKI and HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writers

SEOUL -- South Korea's leading opposition Democratic Party of Korea on Monday chose Moon Jae-in as its presidential nominee, making him the likely winner of the May 9 election.

Moon, a former party leader, won 60% of the votes cast in the party's final primary on Monday. Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung and South Chungcheong Gov. Ahn Hee-jung came in at 22% and 17%, respectively. Moon received 57% of all votes cast at the Democratic Party's entire primary process, winning the nomination in a landslide.

In his victory speech, Moon pledged that as president, he would eradicate corruption and injustices that have frustrated the South Korean people. He also called for a break from the policies of impeached President Park Geun-hye. With the public increasingly dissatisfied with the last nine years under two conservative presidents, Moon promises a change of direction for the country.

The candidate's liberal activism can be traced to his youth. In college, he was arrested for his opposition to dictator Park Chung-hee, Park Geun-hye's father. He fought for workers' rights as a human rights lawyer after graduation, and frequently clashed with the military regime of Chun Doo-hwan in the 1980s.

Moon was close to liberal former President Roh Moo-hyun, and they had a joint law practice in Moon's hometown of Busan. He served as Roh's top aide during the latter's 2003-08 presidency and resumed practicing law after Roh left office. But he was convinced to return to the political arena in 2012, heeding appeals from Roh's supporters after the former president committed suicide in 2009.

True to his roots, Moon is running on a progressive platform. He is calling for changes among prosecutors, family-run conglomerates, the media and other fields. He has promised to focus on the Samsung group and three other conglomerates in his efforts to break up the cozy relationship between politicians and big business, and to introduce a more democratic, transparent government structure.

He has also denounced Park's hard-line policy on North Korea, which relied on economic sanctions and military pressure. He is advocating a more conciliatory approach, including a dialogue on Pyongyang's nuclear development. He has offered to go anywhere and speak with anyone to resolve the nuclear issue, and said he would even meet with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un before a trip to the U.S.

On the other hand, Moon is hawkish on Japan. He staunchly opposes a 2015 deal between South Korea and Japan designed to put the issue of wartime "comfort women" to rest. He wants to renegotiate the accord to include an apology from Japan and touch on Japan's legal responsibility in the matter. Last year, he also set foot on the disputed islets called Takeshima by Japan and Dokdo by South Korea. South Korea needs a president who will not forget history, and needs to be a country that fulfills its duty to independence fighters and the comfort women, Moon said when announcing his candidacy.

Moon has 43% of overall support, according to a poll published Monday by Realmeter. Former People's Party co-chair Ahn Cheol-soo, his closest rival, trails far behind at 23%.

Ahn will almost certainly be chosen the candidate for the centrist People's Party on Tuesday. The outcome of the presidential race will depend on whether he can garner support from South Korea's conservatives as well. Park's conservative Liberty Korea Party and the splinter Bareun Party both lack a clear standard-bearer. If centrists and conservatives unite behind Ahn, he could give Moon a close race.

Moon's blanket refusal to work with the conservatives has fostered hope among liberals, who want a complete overhaul in politics. But it is a double-edged sword that also may keep him from appealing to a wider audience.

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