- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 7, 2017

SEOUL — A divided public will head to the polls here on Tuesday to pick a successor to impeached former President Park Geun-hye in an election that could dramatically impact U.S.-South Korean relations and intensify political tensions that have heightened over the past year.

International media have focused on the prospect that the election’s liberal front-runner, Moon Jae-in, a longtime advocate of increased diplomatic outreach to North Korea, will clash with the Trump administration’s more bare-knuckle posture toward the growing nuclear threat emanating from Pyongyang.

But voters say an equally daunting uncertainty centers on whether Mr. Moon or any of the four other candidates on the ticket — should one upset the front-runner — can restore order to a nation deeply split on North Korea policy and a host of other issues.

“The country is so divided right now. It’s very important for the next president to unify the people, but I think it’s going to be very difficult for whoever wins,” said Younggi Min, a 28-year-old from the outskirts of Seoul.

Mr. Min, who said he voted early for centrist candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, told The Washington Times the biggest challenge for the next president, whether it’s Mr. Ahn or the more progressive Mr. Moon, will come from a clutch of conservative hard-liners who remain furious over the March impeachment of Ms. Park.

“I don’t understand why these people want to bring back Park Geun-hye so badly,” he said. “She created all these problems.”

But many see the former president as an icon of South Korea’s conservative establishment and have accused the nation’s liberal media of inflaming corruption and influence-peddling scandals that suddenly brought about her ouster and indictment on charges of bribery, extortion and abuse of power.

At the same time, Ms. Park was blamed for stirring up division in the nation’s electorate last year when her administration agreed to allow Washington to forge ahead with the deployment of a missile defense shield to South Korea known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.

The political left criticized the development as a dangerous, U.S.-backed military escalation with North Korea, while conservative hard-liners said it was about time a South Korean president made such a move to counter the growing missile threat from Pyongyang.

With THAAD having gone live in South Korea during recent weeks, public division over it has burned beneath the election. Mr. Moon says he will order a government review of the deployment if he wins — a promise that has outraged conservatives.

“THAAD is for the security of South Korea. It’s a minimum defense against North Korean missiles. It’s needed, and it doesn’t escalate anything,” Kwak Imyong, 66, told The Times on Saturday as he stood in front of Seoul’s city hall, where others rallied for Ms. Park to be exonerated and restored to the presidency.

Mr. Kwak spoke near about two-dozen tents that pro-Park protesters have occupied since her ouster. A sign erected around the encampment reads: “Because we must deter pro-North Korean sympathizers from their conspiracy to communize the South under the pretext of the unjustifiable presidential impeachment.”

“We’re going to keep this rally going until Park is let out of jail,” said Namgil Baik, a 65-year-old farmer from the outskirts of Seoul.

Despite such outcry, analysts said Mr. Moon is expected to cruise to victory and that he has shown little sign of empathy toward the plight of the impeached president’s supporters.

The last public polls before the vote gave Mr. Moon a roughly 20-percentage-point lead over his nearest challengers, including Mr. Ahn and conservative Hong Joon-pyo.

If anything, the 64-year-old front-runner is seen to have captured public support by criticizing the Park administration’s handling of the North Korea threat.

Mr. Moon is a former human rights lawyer and one-time backer of the Sunshine Policy of diplomatic outreach to the isolated North, which has been divided from the South since the 1950-1953 war that tore through the Korean Peninsula.

The prospect of a Moon victory comes just as the Trump administration pushes to revamp U.S. strategy toward the North amid heightened concern over Pyongyang’s accelerating pursuit of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles that could threaten allies such as South Korea and Japan and reach the American homeland.

Speculation is swirling over how willing a Moon-led South Korea, where some 30,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed, will be to go along with what analysts expect to be a Trump-era military buildup including potential U.S. airstrikes against Pyongyang.

Mr. Moon has said in recent weeks that he is eager to work through any disagreements with the Trump administration.

But the prospect of sustained political division over North Korea policy still looms on the South’s political landscape.

Moon Jae-in will not be able to unify the country. He must not be elected because his way of unifying the country will end up strengthening North Korea, because, at the end of the day, he wants to give a lot of money to North Korea,” said one 50-year-old civil servant, who asked to go only by the name Mr. Kim.

In what may be a testament to Mr. Moon’s deftness at attracting a wide swath of voters from middle, however, the front-runner has attracted criticism from the far left in South Korea, most notably from gay rights activists.

Many of them were outraged when the front-runner said “I don’t like homosexuality” during a televised debate after a conservative candidate had pushed him on whether gays should be allowed to marry.

“I can’t believe Moon was ever a human rights lawyer,” gay rights activist Yoo Kyeol told The Korea Times. “He could have just refused to answer. That way, we wouldn’t be so upset.”

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