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South Korea Prepares for Presidential Election

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A presidential election will take place in South Korea next month. The results could produce a change in policy that may reduce tensions with North Korea and worsen them with the United States.

The presidential election is set for May 9. It is to take place earlier than planned because former President Park Geun-hye was removed from office by South Korea’s National Assembly in December. That vote was confirmed by the country’s Supreme Court last month.

Park is accused of involvement in a multi-million dollar bribery scandal. Government lawyers say large and powerful Korean companies were given favors in exchange for donations to organizations controlled by a friend of Park.

Park was recently arrested. Prosecutors are trying to gather evidence that will permit them to charge her with bribery, extortion and abuse of power. If she is found guilty, she could be sent to prison for more than 10 years.

Because of the scandal, support for Park’s conservative policies has weakened and her party has split.

The major South Korean political parties have chosen their presidential candidates. The two candidates who have received the most support in public opinion surveys are from liberal parties that have been out of power since 2008.

The Democratic Party

Moon Jae-in is the Democratic Party candidate for president. A public opinion study by Realmeter says Moon has 41 percent support. Moon is a human rights lawyer who lost to Park in the 2012 election partly because voters believed he was not strong enough in his criticisms of North Korea.

However, Park’s conservative policies have been criticized recently because of increased tensions with the North.

Tensions have risen because of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s efforts to develop nuclear and missile programs. Moon said Park’s decision to limit ties with the North and use economic sanctions to pressure the North have failed.

He said if he becomes president he would put in place a limited version of the so-called Sunshine Policy of Engagement. In the early 2000s, South Korea tried to build trust with North Korea through investment, exchanges and aid programs. At the same time, South Korea kept most sanctions in place.

South Korea's opposition Democratic Party leader Moon Jae-in celebrates after winning the nomination as the party's presidential candidate during a party's presidential primary in Seoul, South Korea, April 3, 2017.
South Korea's opposition Democratic Party leader Moon Jae-in celebrates after winning the nomination as the party's presidential candidate during a party's presidential primary in Seoul, South Korea, April 3, 2017.

“We need to have two tracks of measures here. We need to be able to apply some pressure and coercion on North Korea, but on the other hand we should also start discussions and dialogue with North Korea,” Moon said.

Moon’s support for talks with the North could cause tensions with the United States. He has said he strongly supports his country’s relations with the U.S. But he has also said South Korea should learn to say “no” to the U.S.

He has not directly opposed the deployment of an American anti-missile program in South Korea. But Moon has said it should not be deployed until after the election, so the next president can decide whether it is worth the risk of worsening relations with China.

China strongly opposes the program.

The People’s Party

Moderate candidate Ahn Cheol-soo recently won the nomination of the People’s Party. He has 34 percent support in the Realmeter poll. But his support has been growing in recent weeks. He left the 2012 presidential election to support Moon, but he says he will stay in the election this time and expects to win.

Ahn has stronger national security policies than Moon. He supports the American anti-missile system. He also approves of international sanctions placed on North Korea for violating United Nations Security Council resolutions banning its nuclear program. But Ahn says, like Moon, he would support talks with North Korea.

“What is the purpose of putting in sanctions against North Korea? Because we would like to persuade them to come to the negotiating table at the time we want and under the conditions that we want,” said Ahn.

Ahn Cheol-soo, a presidential candidate of South Korea's People's Party, speaks at a forum in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, April 6, 2017.
Ahn Cheol-soo, a presidential candidate of South Korea's People's Party, speaks at a forum in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, April 6, 2017.

The issue of nuclear weapons

Park’s conservative party has split. Those who remain loyal to her have named themselves Liberty Party Korea. Conservatives who supported her removal from office have formed the Bareun Party. The candidates of the two parties have stronger national security policies than Park. Neither one has more than 10 percent support in the recent Realmeter poll.

Hong Joon-pyo is the Liberty Party Korea candidate. He is a former prosecutor. He has nine percent support in the Realmeter poll. In a speech accepting his party’s nomination, he promised to be a “resolute strongman” who can deal with pressure from the United States, China, Japan, North Korea and Russia. Hong strongly supports the anti-missile system. And he said if he is elected he will “immediately start discussions with the U.S. on the re-deployment of nuclear weapons” in South Korea.

The U.S. removed nuclear weapons from South Korea in the early 1990s. Critics say returning them to South Korea would weaken international support for sanctions against the North’s nuclear program. The U.S. has promised to use its nuclear weapons to defend the South from an attack by the North.

South Korean protesters stage a rally to oppose a plan to deploy an advanced U.S. missile defense system called Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, in front of the Defense Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 28, 2017.
South Korean protesters stage a rally to oppose a plan to deploy an advanced U.S. missile defense system called Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, in front of the Defense Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 28, 2017.

Bareun party presidential candidate Yoo Seong-min has three percent support in the public opinion survey. Yoo was once an aid to Park. Yoo successfully ran as an independent for the National Assembly. He supported Park’s impeachment and then created the Bareun party.

Yoo also supports the deployment of nuclear weapons in South Korea. And he says the U.S. should deploy three anti-missile batteries, not one, paid for by South Korea.

In addition to security, the South Korean economy will be a major election issue. The major candidates have different positions on limiting the influence of the country’s largest companies and increasing opportunity for young people who are having a difficult time finding good jobs.

While Moon has the most support, some of the other candidates are reportedly thinking about leaving the race and giving their support to Ahn. This would give him more support than Moon.

VOA Correspondent Brian Padden reported this story from Seoul. Youmi Kim contributed reporting. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted the report for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.

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Words in This Story

bribery – n. the act or crime of giving or accepting a bribe (which is a payment of something valuable -- such as money -- that is given in order to get someone to do something; usually a bribe is used to get someone to do something illegal or dishonest)

scandal – n. an occurrence in which people are shocked and upset because of behavior that is morally or legally wrong

favor – n. a kind or helpful act that you do for someone

extortion – n. the crime of getting money from someone by the use of force or threats

sanction – n. an action that is taken or an order that is given to force a country to obey international laws by limiting or stopping trade with that country, by not allowing economic aid for that country, etc. (usually plural)

track – n. the course along which someone or something moves or proceeds

coercion – n. the crime of making (someone) do something by using force or threats

dialogue – n. a discussion or series of discussions that two groups or countries have in order to end a disagreement

resolute – adj. very determined; having or showing a lot of determination

strongman – n. a politician or leader who uses violence or threats

battery – n. a group of two or more big guns used by the military

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