Posted : 2012-12-04 23:05
Updated : 2012-12-04 23:05

Park gains, Moon loses and Lee smiles

From left, minor leftist Unified Progressive Party's Lee Jung-hee, Moon Jae-in of the main opposition Democratic United Party and Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party listen to a host, unseen, explaining rules during their first of three televised presidential debates in an MBC studio in Yeouido, Seoul, Tuesday night. / Yonhap

DUP candidate delivers no decisive blow in 1st TV debate

By Kim Tong-hyung

Opposition challenger Moon Jae-in portrayed conservative rival Park Geun-hye as a defense and foreign policy amateur Tuesday, displaying a sense of urgency in using the first televised presidential debate to invigorate his faltering candidacy.

Park, the contender from the ruling Saenuri Party, hit back by accusing her Democratic United Party (DUP) rival of shifting positions on North Korea-related issues that would undermine the country's stability at home and its security abroad.

The two familiar adversaries joined leftist Unified Progressive Party (UPP) candidate Lee Jung-hee in the first of three obligatory debates on national television ― the other two scheduled for Dec. 10 and 16 ― attempting to appeal directly to Korean voters ahead of the Dec. 19 poll.

With microscopic support that hovers around 0.5 percent, Lee was the distant third-wheel in the debate, but nonetheless seemed passionate about her self-imposed role as a Park spoiler.

The three candidates were united in condemning North Korea's preparation for a long-range missile launch later this month. That was one of the few issues they managed to agree on in the debate on politics, foreign policy and inter-Korean relations.

It was Moon who had been pressed to come out swinging and he attempted to set the tone by accusing the ruling party and incumbent President Lee Myung-bak of ineptitude in national defense.

He pointed to military clashes with North Korea over the past five years, including the sinking of the South's warship Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

Park countered by criticizing her rival for what she saw as flip-flopping in his stance toward the Northern Limited Line (NLL), the de facto maritime border between the two Koreas. She also blasted Moon's claim that inter-Korean relations were better during the days of the late President Roh Moo-hyun, his political mentor, reminding him that it was 2006 when Pyongyang embarked on its controversial nuclear weapons program.

''During the 2007 defense ministers' meeting between the two Koreas, candidate Moon criticized the South minister for being too rigid in negotiations. The minister was then claiming that the NLL must be respected (as a border) and I am concerned whether (you) feel the need to change this. Candidate Moon flipped his stance on the NLL recently and said it was effectively the maritime border, but I find it hard to trust (you),'' Park said.

She called for the release of government-held transcripts of the talks between Roh and then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2007, when the NLL issue was supposedly discussed.

Moon, who at the time served as Roh's chief of staff, strongly denied the suspicions and accused his rival of smear campaigning and rumor mongering.

''The basic agreement between South and North Korea in 1992 asserts the NLL as a maritime border between the two countries that shouldn't be infiltrated by either side. I have repeatedly stressed that the NLL is the real maritime border and it's regrettable that the same kind of accusations keep coming up,'' Moon said, adding that the conflict between then-Defense Minister Kim Jang-soo was related to setting joint fishing territories between the two countries.

The debate on political reform turned into a finger-jabbing contest as well. Park raised suspicions that Moon, during his time on Roh's presidential staff, attempted to pressure a Financial Supervisory Service (FSS) official during the regulator's monitoring of a savings bank based in Busan, his hometown, which was suspended earlier this year due to bad finances.

She also claimed that Moon used his political standing to land a high-profile job for his son and attempted to evade taxes from gains on real estate transactions.

Moon denied the accusations and questioned why Park's close confidents in the Saenuri Party continue to get charged with bribery and influence peddling.

It was unclear who had the better night between Park and Moon, as the fiery exchanges came too far in between and the conversations often turned circular and pointless.

However, politics watchers who sat through the two-hour program that continued through 10 p.m. were wondering whether Moon had done enough when he finds himself on the wrong side of a widening popularity gap with Park.

While Moon had his assertive moments, he appeared nervous, distracted and unprepared in others, allowing himself to be frequently upstaged by Lee, who delivered numerous memorable lines and witty put-downs in her attacks on Park.

The television debate followed one of the nastiest presidential campaigns in recent memory with each camp criticizing the other for increasingly personal attacks. Park and Moon has been sniping back and forth over policy and principles and also dead presidents, and the competition between them now seems fully drenched in mutual hatred.

A verbal lighting rod between Park and Moon has been the growing controversy over the NLL.

The Saenuri Party alleges that the late President Roh, the last DUP alumni to make it to Cheong Wa Dae, offered to renounce the South's claim on this during a 2007 meeting with then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

The ruling party has been demanding public disclosure of the transcript of the meeting, which existence was recently confirmed by National Intelligence Service chief Won Sei-hoon. The DUP demands that the Saenuri Party's source come forth and disclose the transcript he or she claims to have seen.

''This election will determine whether the country sets itself for a well-prepared future or returns back to a failed past,'' Park said in her opening comments.

''To overcome the financial crisis and take the next step to becoming an advanced nation, we need a leader that can bridge the divided nation.''

Moon consistently stressed political reform and the elimination of partisan politics, which seemed as a pitch to the supporters of former independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, who withdrew from the race last month after talks to merge candidacies with Moon fell through.

''The reason I got involved in politics is because I had a strong desire to change politics. That desire was lit in me during the death of the late President Roh Moo-hyun,'' he said.

''The death of Roh was a tragedy produced by confrontational and hostile politics. I want to bring a new era of politics where the fighting stops and revenge stops and (parties) find a way to build mutually productive relations.''

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