The recent set of debates involving presidential front-runner Moon Jae-in on whether or not to define North Korea as the “main enemy” seemed to be deja-vu of 2012, when another North Korean factor played a key role in leading to conservative victory in the presidential election.
Once again, he finds himself caught between calls to take a firm stance as state leader against the neighboring communist regime and the liberal ideal of achieving common prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.
The battle over North Korean policies is an all-too-familiar election agenda in South Korea, a nation marked for its unique peninsular division based on political ideology.
Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea (Yonhap)
This year, it was Hong Joon-pyo of the conservative Liberty Korea Party who first rekindled the issue against Moon.
“If Moon wins the election, the actual president of the Republic of Korea shall be (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un,” said the hard-line conservative candidate during a street campaign in Busan on Tuesday.
Hong, known for his outspoken remarks, accused the liberal front-runner of assuming an amicable stance toward the communist state, riding on the general suspicion among conservative voters that a liberal administration may be harmful to the nation’s security, especially concerning North Korea.
The conservative splinter Bareun Party followed suit in attacking Moon over North Korean issues by charging Moon with spreading false information over his alleged involvement in a United Nations resolution in 2007.
The assertion was that Moon, who was at the time chief of staff for liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, had consulted Pyongyang on whether or not Seoul should take part in the resolution to improve North Korean human rights.
The related story, which was included in a political autobiography of a former top diplomat, stirred considerable dispute late last year, just before the Choi Soon-sil scandal took over headlines.
The repeated allegations that the liberal camp is “submissive” toward the North has always been a sore spot for Moon.
In the 2012 presidential election campaign season, Moon seemed to be taking the upper hand over conservative rival Park Geun-hye when allegations were raised that Roh had attempted in 2007 to nullify the inter-Korean maritime border known as the Northern Limit Line.
The then-Saenuri Party lawmaker who brought up the issue was later handed down a fine for suggesting false information, but the court ruling only took place after the election -- a victory for Park.
But it is also based upon such experience that Moon’s camp this year is claiming to be better prepared for North Korean issues and other national security agendas.
“This was about to happen at some point or another,” was the response of one of Moon’s camp when Hong associated Moon with the North Korean leader.
During the run-up to the official electioneering period, the recent set of national security threats -- ranging from the North’s missile launches to the US gesture to take pre-emptive attacks upon the North -- had not inflicted tangible damage on Moon’s support or public image.
It was his camp officials’ analysis that the political slump of conservative candidates, along with Moon‘s powerful image as a former member of the special force, weakened the conventional impact of the issues.
But upon Wednesday’s live television debate, the disputes on how to define North Korea and Moon‘s ambiguous answers once again brought up the old ideological battle in elections.