SEOUL: South Koreans go to the polls next Tuesday (May 9) to elect a new president amid rising tension on the Korean peninsula, as North Korea continues to make threats of an attack on its southern neighbour.
For the last 10 years, South Korea has taken a very tough stance on North Korea which continues to build up its nuclear and missile capabilities. Pyongyang on Friday threatened to launch an "anti-terrorist" attack against South Korea and the United States following claims that the two countries had plotted to kill North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un.
But relations between the two Koreas and South Korea's ties with the United States could all change if the frontrunner Moon Jae-in wins in the upcoming presidential elections. Moon has said he would try to negotiate with Pyongyang, and when needed will stay "no" to Washington, its strongest ally.
Currently Moon, the presidential candidate from the main opposition party, is leading the opinion polls with more than 40 per cent. His two closest rivals trail far behind with slightly more than 15 per cent.
If Moon wins the elections, it could be also be bad news for US President Donald Trump. While Moon said he agrees with Trump that the policy of strategic patience has failed, that is nearly all they have in common.
While Trump is pushing China to do more to rein in Pyongyang, Moon said South Korea should take the central role in dealing with North Korea. And he would do it with persuasion rather than force.
"We must not rely on China but it should be South Korea playing that role and that’s why we need to come up with a new policy," said Moon on his campaign trail. "With North Korea renouncing its nuclear weapons program and agreeing to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, we must come up with comprehensive peace agreement."
The frontrunner is also keen to reopen the inter-Korean joint industrial complex in North Korea's Kaesong. A key aide to the late liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, Moon believes that more exchanges with North Korea will help improve relations between the two Koreas and lead to gradual reunification.
STANDING UP TO WASHINGTON
Moon also wants South Korea to stand up to the United States more, including over the deployment of US-made THAAD anti-missile system. He believes that the deployment issue should be handed over to the new government that takes office right after election day.
Typically there is a transition period for South Korea's elected president, but since South Korea has no president now following the impeachment of former leader Park Geun-hye, whoever is elected will assume office immediately.
Centrist politician Ahn Cheol-soo from the People’s Party is also in favour of talks with North Korea, except he said he would do that with the protection of the THAAD anti-missile system as well as United Nation sanctions on North Korea.
Whoever becomes president, analysts in Seoul say South Korea needs to get its act together quickly after the election before the situation worsens on the Korea peninsula.
"We have lost many opportunities to be on the international diplomatic stage and possibly lost many benefits too,” said Park Won-ho, a professor at Seoul National University. “We need to start catching up as we are in an extreme situation,"
For nearly 10 years now, South Korea has been ruled by conservatives who believe tougher policies and sanctions are the way to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
And they have worked very closely with the United States to ensure they have the support of the international community. But all this is likely to change if the liberal candidate Moon becomes the next South Korean president, which is very likely to happen.