April 21, 2017 5:30 am JST

Top South Korean candidates take harder line on North

Rising friction fuels conservative ire at pro-rapprochement policies

SOTARO SUZUKI, Nikkei staff writer

SEOUL -- The two front-runners in South Korea's presidential campaign are backing away from prior calls for engagement with North Korea as mounting tensions fuel accusations of being soft on Pyongyang.

In the race's first televised debate Wednesday, Democratic Party of Korea candidate Moon Jae-in came under heavy fire for his North Korea policy. Moon effectively engineered a 2007 North-South summit as chief of staff to then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. He said last year he would be willing to visit North Korea before the U.S. after the election if it would help resolve the nuclear issue.

But with Pyongyang's provocations heightening tensions with Washington, Moon faces growing criticism, mainly from conservatives, over his signature policy of engagement with the North.

The left-leaning candidate said during the debates that the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, missile defense system, should be deployed if North Korea conducts a sixth nuclear test and if China cannot rein the country in. This represents a harder line than his previous stance that the matter should be left for the next administration to decide.

Yet his desire for reconciliation does not seem ot have undergone a big change. Yoo Seong-min, the candidate of the splinter conservative Bareun Party, pressed Moon on whether North Korea is Seoul's "main enemy," saying the National Defense Ministry uses the term.

Moon avoided the question, saying that "it's not for the president to say."

This evasiveness drew criticism from Moon's left. "You come across as two-faced, like you're just saying what suits the U.S. and China," said Sim Sang-jung of the minor progressive Justice Party.

If Moon cares only about what Washington and Beijing think, he will end up being used by the larger powers, Sim warned.

The other front-runner, Ahn Cheol-soo, also seems to favor reconciliation at heart. Many top officials in Ahn's centrist People's Party supported former President Kim Dae-jung's administration and its dialogue-focused approach. The candidate has praised past North-South joint declarations advocating increased cooperation and criticized the government's agreement to deploy THAAD as "not in the national interest."

Yet Ahn also changed course at Wednesday's debate. Hong Joon-pyo of the conservative Liberty Korea Party, formerly the Saenuri Party, asked if Ahn would carry on Kim's policy of rapprochement with the North. Ahn said he would continue the policy's achievements while avoiding repeating its mistakes.

The candidate also changed his view on THAAD, saying that "suddenly changing circumstances" leave no choice but to deploy the system.

The election is scheduled for May 9.

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