March 15, 2017 4:30 am JST

South Korean Presidential hopefuls split on working with Park supporters

Democratic Party candidates leading in race slated for early May

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writer

SEOUL -- Presidential candidates from South Korea's leading opposition Democratic Party exchanged volleys in a televised debate Tuesday, with cooperation with conservative supporters of former President Park Geun-hye emerging as a major point of contention.

Former party chief Moon Jae-in, South Chungcheong Gov. Ahn Hee-jung, and Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung were among the four debaters.

The liberal Democratic Party descended from predecessor parties that produced such presidents as Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Both the party itself and its candidates have a strong lead in the polls. Whoever is chosen as its official nominee as early as April 3 will be a key contender.

At the debate, Moon pointed out that the top 10% of South Koreans take home 50% of the wealth. He stressed the need to create a fairer economic structure, and said that as president, he would address the country's problems with employment.

Lee argued that inequality was holding back South Korea's development. He proposed the distribution of coupons designed to spur regional economies.

Ahn explained that his top priority was to unite the divided country. South Korean law requires legislation dividing ruling and opposition lawmakers to be approved by at least three-fifths of lawmakers, but the Democratic Party has just about 40% of the National Assembly's seats. Even if it wins the presidency, it will not be able to pass laws designed to fix the economy without conservative support.

A coalition government is the only path to unite the people and to reform the country, Ahn said. He likely hopes to catch up to Moon, the party's front-runner, by getting conservatives on his side.

Conservatives make up a sizable portion of South Korean voters. But former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon dropped out of the presidential race early on, and no major flag-bearer has emerged. There is great speculation over who will lead the bloc in the aftermath of Park's impeachment.

According to a Realmeter poll on Democratic candidates published Monday, Moon led the field with 40.1% support despite a 6.2-point drop from the week before. Ahn, meanwhile, rose 5.9 points to 31.9%. Those outside the party tend to favor Ahn, pushing his overall approval rating up nearly 10 points.

Moon slammed Ahn's calls for coalition-building, saying politicians coming together is not the same thing as restoring national unity. Lee also argued that fighting corruption would be more difficult while working with those with vested interests.

The candidates otherwise seemed to agree on such topics as reforming South Korea's conglomerates, social welfare, and a greater dialogue with North Korea. One of their few disagreements was over the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile shield in South Korea.

Ahn has expressed support for THAAD before. He said Tuesday that he would clearly communicate to China that the system was intended to defend South Korea from Pyongyang's nuclear and missile threat, and that the South Korea-U.S. alliance would not stand against China.

Moon criticized Park for handling the THAAD deployment in a clumsy manner, which he argued led China to take strong retaliatory measures. But he also said that Seoul must speak out if necessary against Beijing, and make diplomatic efforts to get China on board. He did not explicitly state whether he supported or opposed the deployment.

On the other hand, Lee voiced his unequivocal opposition to THAAD, calling it a policy with no security or economic benefits. He said South Korea should urge the U.S. to walk back the decision.

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