South Korea's presidential candidates, from left, Lee Jung-Hee, Moon Jae-In and Park Geun-Hye. Photo: AFP
South Korea's ruling party and main opposition presidential candidates called on North Korea to halt plans to fire a rocket this month, while pledging to engage with the totalitarian country to improve relations.
In a debate on Monday ahead of the December 19 election, Park Geun Hye of the ruling New Frontier Party and Moon Jae In of the Democratic United Party said a launch would further isolate the regime. At the same time, neither backed away from a willingness to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in an effort to ease tensions with the nuclear-armed state.
"There are no preconditions for dialogue with North Korea," Park said in Seoul. "If trust is built and there is progress on denuclearising North Korea, I will pursue a large-scale project to boost economic cooperation."
A satellite image of the Sohae satellite launch station in North Korea. Photo: ap
Kim's plan to launch a rocket between December 10 and December 22 renewed focus on South Korea's security after both candidates pledged to reverse a deterioration of bilateral ties under outgoing President Lee Myung Bak. A failed rocket launch in April cost North Korea a food aid deal with the US and brought increased international sanctions against his impoverished regime.
"It is wrong for North Korea to raise inter-Korean tension and tension in north-east Asia by launching a long-range missile," Moon said. "North Korean policy must bring about inter-Korean reconciliation and through it, finding a new vision and new growth potentials."
Park leads in the polls, putting her in line to become the first female leader of Asia's fourth-biggest economy. Her support rose 1.5 percentage points to 49.7 per cent, while Moon's fell 0.6 per cent to 42.8 per cent, according to a daily poll published on Monday by Realmeter and JTBC, a television affiliate of the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper. The survey of 1500 people had a 2.5 percentage point margin of error.
"There are no preconditions for dialogue with North Korea" ... Park Geun Hye. Photo: AP
Both Moon and Park have proposed summit talks with the North for the first time since 2007. Park, 60, is the eldest daughter of former President Park Chung Hee, whose wife was killed during a 1974 North Korean assassination attempt on him.
She has called for installing offices in Seoul and North Korean capital Pyongyang to improve communication and said she would help North Korea join global financial and trade organisations.
Moon's DUP has long advocated improved ties and he has pledged to invite North Korea officials to his inauguration. Moon, 59, is a former human-rights lawyer jailed in 1975 for leading street protests against the government of Park's father, Park Chung Hee. He served as chief of staff to President Roh Moo Hyun, who was in office from 2003 to 2008 and followed the so-called Sunshine Policy that encouraged reunions of families separated by the border.
Lee, whose five-year term ends in February, abandoned the policy on the grounds that it rewarded North Korea's provocative behaviour. Relations deteriorated further in 2009 when North Korea conducted its second nuclear weapons test, and again in 2010 with the sinking of a South Korean warship and shelling of a border island, which left a total of 50 dead.
The two Koreas technically remain at war after their 1950-1953 conflict ended without a peace treaty. The US military has about 28,500 soldiers stationed in South Korea.