S. Korean Presidential Candidates Downplay Differences with US on N. Korea

South Korean Presidential candidates debated this week how to manage relations with Seoul’s increasingly forceful U.S. ally, as tensions mount over the North Korean nuclear threat.

An early South Korean presidential election, scheduled for May 9, was precipitated by the impeachment of ex-President Park Geun-hye for her alleged involvement in a multi-million dollar corruption scandal. Park is currently under arrest and has been indicted on multiple criminal charges, including bribery for her role in the scandal.

At a presidential debate in Seoul Wednesday, the major party candidates addressed what South Korea can do to resolve the volatile stand-off between North Korea’s defiant development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and repeated warnings by the new administration of U.S. President Donald Trump that it would consider the unilateral use of military force against a provocative act by Pyongyang that threatens U.S. security.

Following the impeachment of the discredited conservative Park, the two leading presidential contenders in public opinion polls are liberal-leaning advocates for increased dialogue and engagement with North Korea. However the frontrunner, the Democratic Party’s Moon Jae-in, stressed his support for harsh sanctions against Pyongyang and the strong military alliance with the United States, and said any differences with U.S. policy could be handled through constructive diplomatic channels.

“I think we need to closely discuss and cooperate with the U.S., which is our ally. In the process, we have to express our opinion to make sure our position is fully adopted,” said Moon.

The second leading contender, Ahn Cheol-soo with the People’s Party, said he would engage in shuttle diplomacy with the U.S. and China to give the Korean people a greater voice to peacefully resolve the longstanding division at the heart of this crisis.

“We have to let them know we need to avoid war and we have to be the main agent in these various situations that determine the fate of South Korea,” he said.

Different endgames

All the candidates, liberal and conservative, agreed with the Trump administration that China must increase pressure on its economically dependent ally in Pyongyang. But they differed on the purpose of the increased sanctions on the Kim Jong Un leadership.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence this week argued the Kim Jong Un government must be forced to unconditionally dismantle its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs because North Korea violated all past deals that offered economic and security incentives for compliance.

The leading South Korean candidates support sanctions as a means to convince the North to enter multilateral negotiations that would again offer increasing development aid and investment for nuclear concessions.

However, Northeast Asia analyst Daniel Pinkston with Troy University in Seoul said whatever differences may arise between a potentially left leaning government in Seoul and hardliners in Washington, their longstanding alliance will continue to be united by their shared interests and a common enemy.

“I think any difficulty will be manageable particularly since the alliance is mature and very well institutionalized at this time, in the shadow of this increasingly threatening North Korean posture,” said Pinkston.

THAAD

The conservative candidates criticized Moon for his ambiguous stance on the THAAD missile defense system. Moon said he wants to postpone deploying the U.S. advance anti-missile system until the new president takes office and can evaluate its benefits and drawbacks. But at the debate Moon said he would use the threat of THAAD deployment to pressure China to restrain North Korea.

“For China, we have to make it clear that it is unavoidable to deploy THAAD if North Korea conducts a nuclear test.” he said.

Ahn strongly supports THAAD, as do the conservative candidates. And they all object to China’s coercive tactics to try to pressure South Korea to cancel the missile defense system deployment.

Beijing opposes THAAD as an unnecessary and provocative regional military escalation and has voiced concern that the system’s powerful radar could be used to spy on them and other countries. China has reportedly imposed informal economic sanctions against South Korea by limiting tourism and imports of Korean cosmetics, canceling K-pop concerts and shutting down a number of South Korean department stores in China.

Youmi Kim contributed to this report.

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