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Park caught in debate crossfire

Presidential candidates clash in first TV debate

Presidential frontrunner Park Geun-hye came under fire in Tuesday’s TV debate from both opposition candidates over her aides’ corruption, absolute control of her party and ties to the incumbent administration and past dictatorial governments.

Park struck back at Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party and Lee Jung-hee of the minority Unified Progressive Party by raising doubts about their commitment to national security and market economics.

The first of three televised debates organized by the National Election Commission between the three main candidates focused on political reform, anti-corruption measures, North Korea and foreign affairs.

Presidential candidates Park Geun-hye (from right) of the Saenuri Party, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party and Lee Jung-hee of the Unified Progressive Party clasp hands ahead of the first of their three television debates on Tuesday. (National Assembly photo pool)
Presidential candidates Park Geun-hye (from right) of the Saenuri Party, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party and Lee Jung-hee of the Unified Progressive Party clasp hands ahead of the first of their three television debates on Tuesday. (National Assembly photo pool)

Park and Moon challenged each other on a whole range of issues, as they vied to win over undecided voters with two weeks remaining until the election. But the most heated moments were sparked by the leftist candidate Lee, who directed her sharp-tongued attacks mainly at Park and bluntly declared she joined the race only to block Park from taking power.

The two main candidates agreed on some points, including political reform, North Korea policy and the Korea-U.S. alliance.

Park accepted Moon’s suggestion that the two parties should deal with overlapping political reform policies and possibly pass relevant bills even before the Dec. 19 election.

They also saw eye-to-eye in criticizing North Korea’s planned long-range rocket launch and calling for the improvement of inter-Korean ties.

But Moon and Lee joined forces to criticize the incumbent Lee Myung-bak administration and point to Park’s responsibility as a ruling party candidate. Moon also turned on Lee when questioning the UPP’s leniency toward North Korea.

The 100-minute debate invited the candidates from the three political parties with at least five seats in the National Assembly. The next debate, on economic democratization and job creation, will be held on Dec. 10 and the third on the low birthrate, aging society and science and technology on Dec. 16.

The candidates started off with two-minute keynote speeches, in which they all vowed to break away from old politics and forge national unity. “The politics of confrontation and hostility does not fall under the responsibility of just one side, but of both sides. There will be no hope unless the politics where one wishes for success by defeating the other changes,” Moon said in his keynote speech.

Moon, whose party is still scrambling to decode the ambiguous message of support from former independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, appeared calm, taking time to mention late President Roh Moo-hyun and that Roh falling victim to confrontational politics had pushed him to join politics.

“I wish to create a win-win politics of dignity (where those involved) do not fight or retaliate against each other,” Moon said.

Park, who attended the funeral of her aide of 15 years earlier in the day, appeared resolute and serious.

“This presidential election is a highly important one that will define whether our country will step toward a prepared future or return to a failed past.”

Emphasizing that she will become a president that will restore the middle class, Park said, “At this juncture where forecast says the conditions will be more difficult next year, what we need is a president that can unite the people in order to overcome the crisis and become a developed nation.”

During the debate, Park also indicated she would return to society the 600 million won ($550,000) that she and her siblings had received from former dictator Chun Doo-hwan. In response to Lee’s question on the appropriateness of such an exchange, Park said she accepted it at a time of crisis upon her father former President Park Chun-hee’s assassination in 1979, and said that she planned to return the money later.

Lee, in her turn, zeroed in on Park, saying, “We must never allow the Saenuri Party that caused the tragedy of the past five years to seize the administration again,” urging Park to agree to an investigation into the massive layoff at Ssangyong Motor.

As part of the leadership that they each believed was important for the next administration, they touted a leader that could communicate (Moon and Lee) or overcome crisis (Park).

The question and answer session allowing each participant to question the other triggered tenser exchanges, as they traded barbs over political reform, corruption, and policies on North Korea and foreign relations.

On political reform

Moon, who focused on political reform from the very start, reiterated his campaign pledges saying that the authority of the president would be reduced while the National Assembly’s power to keep the government in check would be strengthened, and that he would increase the number of proportional representatives to 100.

As with Moon, the Saenuri Party candidate dedicated time to listing her pledges, saying that she would implement a “politics of integration” aimed at reviving the middle-class, balanced growth and unbiased personnel management.

In response to Moon’s question regarding plans to put in motion the proposals for political reform, Park said that her party would cooperate with the DUP to begin work for their legislation before election.

“The Saenuri Party’s political reform committee has proposed that. Particularly with regards to party and political reform, on such common factors (the proposals) could be made before the election,” Park said.

The conservative candidate, however, was less committed to a policy negotiation committee involving the ruling and opposition parties and the government, saying that she would carefully review the issue to see whether such a body would be useful.

While both Moon and Park focused on already rolled out policies, which focus on reducing the privileges of those in power, the UPP’s Lee attacked both the DUP and Saenuri Party.

“At the core of reform is the disbandment of the Saenuri Party,” Lee said accusing the ruling party of being at the center of pro-Japanese and dictatorial-forces remaining in the country’s politics.

Regarding the DUP, Lee said that change could not be brought about while making compromises with those in power.

On corruption

The section of the debate on corruption of those in power turned into a slugfest, as the three candidates hammered each other over various allegations.

Moon first opened fire on Park, connecting her to the incumbent Lee Myung-bak administration.

“A total of 47 presidential aides or family members have been arrested so far,” the DUP flag-bearer said.

“Park, too, has been involved in the irregularities of her closest aides, including her former election committee chief Hong Sa-duk.”

He then pledged to establish a special investigation body to probe the corruption of high-ranking officials, an idea in contrast to Park’s suggestion of introducing a permanent independent counsel for the purpose.

The conservative party’s Park countered Moon’s attacks by citing the allegations that he had exerted political pressure on the prosecution during his years as presidential chief-of-staff.

“How can Moon claim to prevent power-related irregularities when he is suspected of exerting political pressure?” Park said.

Moon responded by accusing the ruling party and Park of once again resorting to mudslinging in order to keep ahead in the race.

“If the allegations were true, they would have been revealed already (before the presidential election),” he said.

“I believed Park to be different but it is a pity that she too should rely on such negative strategies.”

The minority party candidate Lee, on the other hand, blasted Park for living on the illegitimate legacies of her deceased father, the former iron-fisted President Park Chung-hee.

”It is awkward that Park should talk of curbing power-related corruption,” Lee said.

“Yeungnam University and the Jeongsu Foundation, where she sat on the board of directors, were both stolen under Park’s military regime.”

On North Korea

On North Korea, both Park and Moon urged the communist state to cancel its plan to launch a rocket, stressing that it could raise tension on the peninsula and beyond the region.

But Lee argued that the two Koreas needed to seek talks to narrow their perceptional gaps over the launch. Seoul currently believes that it is a missile test disguised as a satellite launch.

“What the North claims to be a working satellite can be converted for a military purpose. I thus believe that the North should scrap the plan. It is a wrong act to ratchet up tension in Northeast Asia through the rocket launch,” said Moon.

Park said, “There is much concern about the launch. It should retract the plan, or else it will face deeper international isolation.”

All three candidates converged on the need for the resumption of inter-Korean dialogue without preconditions. They concurred that the Lee Myung-bak administration’s strict reciprocal policy had ended in the deterioration of inter-Korean ties.

While highlighting the importance of dialogue, Park and Moon also stressed strong defense to maintain deterrence against possible North Korean provocations.

Park reiterated an inter-Korean trust-building process, along with which Seoul and the international community could move the peninsular denuclearization process forward.

She also stressed that rather than seeking a “temporary, fake peace,” South Korea should pursue a permanent, stable policy to entrench peace here and in the region.

“I think there should be a distinction between genuine peace and bogus peace,” she said.

“One that can be maintained through ‘doling out too much’ to the North is not a genuine peace. Based on a robust defense and deterrence, we should carry out the trust-building efforts concurrently.”

Over the Northern Limit Line, Moon reiterated that it was the de facto maritime border. The Saenuri Party has attacked the former chief of staff to late former President Roh Moo-hyun, saying that Roh made remarks renouncing it as a sea border during the 2007 inter-Korean summit.

“I have already staked out my position clearly, saying that it is a maritime border. With this being (a median line), the former government sought to make a joint fishing area with the North,” he said.

“The joint fishing concept is a very reasonable one that would also allow our fishermen to fish in the waters of North Korea while safeguarding the NLL.”

On diplomacy

On the issue of the free trade agreement with the U.S., Park reiterated that she left open the possibility of a renegotiation. But she said that scrapping the deal, which the opposition argues for, could damage Seoul’s international credibility.

“There was a parliamentary motion to call for a renegotiation. That is still in effect and the government will respect that. If there is a need, (I) will seek a renegotiation,” said Park.

Moon has argued that unfair clauses in the deal should be renegotiated to protect those negatively influenced by the deal.

On the realm of foreign policy, both Park and Moon concurred that the next government should continue to enhance its bilateral ties with Washington and China.

How to map out Seoul’s diplomatic strategy was one of the key campaign issues due to China’s growing importance as a trade partner with South Korea and its strong influence over Pyongyang.

But Moon stressed the need to rebalance Seoul’s external policy, arguing that the ruling bloc has focused too much on the relationship with the U.S., which resulted in a serious deterioration of relations with China.

“Our basic foreign policy line is to entrench peninsular peace, and then spread it throughout Northeast Asia. This is (what we call) peace diplomacy,” he claimed.

Park said that she would seek to strengthen the alliance with the U.S. while upgrading the partnership with China. She also stressed the need to forge a new cooperative peace initiative that involved all neighboring states in resolving issues including North Korea. 

By Lee Joo-hee