SEOUL - A major South Korean opposition leader declared his intention to run for president on Thursday, if Park Geun-hye’s impeachment is upheld in court, and promised to modify some of her hard-line policies on North Korea.
Speaking to journalists at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club, Moon Jae-in, a leader of the Democratic Party, South Korea’s leading opposition party, said it would be his “great honor” to run as a candidate in the next presidential election.
The 63-year-old progressive leader was chief of staff for President Roh Moo-hyun, who reportedly clashed with the Bush administration in the 2000s over his pro-engagement policies toward North Korea.
Moon currently leads a prospective field of likely South Korean presidential candidates with a 24 percent approval rating, compared to current U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who is second in the polls with a 19.5 percent rating.
The Democratic Party leader is the first contender to declare for the presidency following the December 9 impeachment of Park by the South Korean National Assembly.
The stunning and sudden collapse of Park’s presidency was caused by allegations that she colluded with her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil to force Korean conglomerates to donate nearly $65 million to two dubious foundations. Choi is also being investigated for funneling foundation funds and lucrative side contracts to herself and her friends.
The Constitutional Court is reviewing the impeachment motion, a process that can take up to six months. If the court affirms, a new presidential election will be scheduled within two months of the ruling.
Moon said that Park’s policies of exclusively using “pressure and coercion” to force the North to give up its nuclear weapons have been a “total failure.”
He said Seoul needs to pursue a more flexible approach to deal with Pyongyang.
“We need [to] have two tracks of measures here. We need to be able to apply some pressure on North Korea, and on the other hand we should also start some discussions and dialogue with North Korea,” Moon said.
The Democratic Party leader also wants to put on hold the U.S. THAAD missile defense shield that China has denounced as a threatening escalation of American military power in the region. Park, he said, moved too quickly and confrontationally to make this controversial decision.
“She should have found a way to diplomatically persuade the concerns of China and Russia, who are worried about the deployment of THAAD in Korea,” he said.
Moon said he would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, if it was agreed that the nuclear issue would be on the agenda, and that he would support a deal to freeze the North’s current nuclear capabilities, with the understanding that dismantling the nuclear program is the long term goal.
Moon emphasized his support for maintaining the close diplomatic relations and strong military alliance with the U.S. that was fostered under Park, but does not think his more conciliatory approach to North Korea will negatively impact the relationship.
On the uncertainly over how President-elect Donald Trump will deal with the situation on the Korean Peninsula, Moon said he expects the strong bi-partisan support in the U.S. Congress for South Korea to continue under Trump.
On relations with Japan, Moon wants to renegotiate the 2015 “Comfort Women” deal in which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered “apologies and remorse” for the thousands of Korean women who were forced into prostitution by the Japanese military during both WWII and Japan’s colonization of Asia. Tokyo also agreed to donate more than $8 million to the surviving Korean victims.
Some of the surviving Comfort Women and supporters in South Korea denounced the apology as informal and insufficient, and rejected informal donation instead of formal compensation for war crimes.
“What Japan needs to do in regards to Comfort Women issues is to recognize fully it’s legal responsibility and make an official apology. We don’t need money,” he said.
Japan has long maintained that all compensation obligations were legally settled in a 1965 diplomatic treaty normalizing relations between Japan and South Korea.
In the 2015 settlement both the South Korean and Japanese government agreed to end the official dispute over the Comfort Women “fully and irreversibly.”
Youmi Kim contributed to this report.