April 20, 2017 10:00 am JST

Two front-runners emerge in South Korea's election

Election appears to hinge on how to deal with North Korea amid rising tensions

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writer

SEOUL The May 9 presidential election in South Korea is shaping up as a two-way race between Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo. With registration for candidacy now closed, five hopefuls remain standing, but only two have any real chance of replacing disgraced former President Park Geun-hye, who was recently forced out of office and into jail.

A survey by opinion research firm Gallup Korea conducted April 11-13 showed Moon with a 40% approval rating compared to Ahn at 37%. The other candidates are not even considered long shots: Hong Joon-pyo, 62, of the conservative Liberty Korea Party, is polling at 7% while Yoo Seong-min, 59, of the conservative Bareun Party, and Sim Sang-jung, 58, of the Justice Party, are eking out 3% each.

Moon, 64, is the former leader of the liberal Democratic Party of Korea. Ahn, 55, is the former co-leader of the People's Party. Basically, there are no major policy differences separating the two, both of whom belonged to the same party until two years ago.

But Ahn surged in the polls amid rising tensions between the U.S. and North Korea over the isolated nation's nuclear ambitions. Ahn stated that South Korea needs to deploy the controversial U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, missile shield -- an about-face from his previous view. He seeks to distance himself from Moon, who wants to avoid antagonizing China and merely stated that the "next government will decide" on THAAD.

Ahn hopes to convince the electorate that he is better prepared to manage a crisis than his opponent. His new stance on THAAD has impressed conservatives, who don't hide their dislike for North Korea. His sudden about-face, however, has drawn criticism from both conservative and liberal camps, which remain unconvinced that it was based on ideology.

Moon, who emphasizes the need for South-North dialogue, said that he would prioritize a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over a visit to the U.S. if it would help solve the nuclear issue. Faced with Ahn's recent showing in the polls, however, Moon has begun emphasizing national security, saying that he will "become the president whom Kim Jong Un fears most."

On April 15, Ahn, who showed up in person to register for the election, emphatically told the press that he would "win without fail for the people." His resignation from parliament to run for election leaves no doubt about his presidential ambitions. Meanwhile, Moon, who registered by proxy, stressed that he "will respond to the public's pressing desires and achieve a true change of government without fail."

With conservative parties losing support after the corruption scandal involving former President Park and her friend Choi Soon-sil, the campaign is looking different from previous contests. Centrist Ahn is winning over conservative voters and quickly closing in on Moon, the only front-runner who, until recently, enjoyed strong liberal support. Now the candidates are nearly neck and neck.

The election result is particularly important to China, which is watching the race closely. Wu Dawei, China's special representative for Korean Peninsula affairs, met with presidential candidates or their staff during his recent visit to South Korea. Wu's visit is intended to pave the way for blocking deployment of THAAD, which can peer beyond North Korea into China, thereby compromising the country's security.

Ages shown are current as of April 15.

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