By Yi Whan-woo
Presidential frontrunners Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo have virtually dropped their opposition to the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile shield in South Korea in an apparent bid to appeal to conservative voters.
Moon, a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Korea, said Tuesday that South Korea can "push ahead" with the ongoing installation of a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery if North Korea's military threats continue to escalate.
"The deployment of the THAAD battery can be pushed ahead with if North Korea carries out nuclear provocations again, and makes advances in its nuclear program," he said in an interview with the Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
Ahn, a former co-chairman of the People's Party, said it would be irresponsible for any presidential candidate to talk about the withdrawal of THAAD in a separate interview with the newspaper.
He also said he will convince party lawmakers opposed to THAAD to drop their objections.
"I initially opposed THAAD deployment because the Park Geun-hye administration inflicted a loss to the national interest by going ahead with the plan without trying to convince China," Ahn said. "But as the THAAD installment is under way, it would be irresponsible for presidential candidates to say the deployment can be withdrawn if they take power."
The shift in views of the two liberal presidential candidates toward THAAD comes amid the growing importance of wooing conservative voters as Moon and Ahn are in a neck-and-neck race.
Moon opposed the decision to deploy THAAD in July 2016, calling it a "hasty measure" that could bring more losses than benefits concerning the national interest, and that it will be discussed again "from scratch" if he was elected president.
In a possible bid to woo centrist voters, he stepped back and acknowledged earlier this year that it would be impractical to renegotiate the deployment.
He still said issues on THAAD "should be dealt with by the next government," while winning approval from the National Assembly and placating China and Russia that are concerned the U.S. will use THAAD's radar to spy on their military activities.
Ahn also protested the deployment in July 2016, claiming it would "be no good for the national interest." He especially questioned THAAD's performance while citing the cost, conflict with China and health risks associated with the electromagnetic waves emitted by the radar.
In September 2016, Ahn talked of using the THAAD card in negotiation with China over North Korea.
However, beginning this year, he has repeatedly said it would be "a breach of promises made on a nation-to-nation level" if South Korea went back on the agreement to set up THAAD, and therefore the new government should respect the deal.
Meanwhile, Moon told the Chosun Ilbo that the THAAD deployment could be "put off" if North Korea freezes its nuclear weapons program and "comes to the dialogue table."
"And furthermore, the deployment will not be necessary at all if North Korea completely scraps its nuclear program," he added.
National security has emerged as a key issue in the lead-up to the May 9 presidential election amid President Donald Trump's hawkish rhetoric against North Korea and Pyongyang's pursuance of its nuclear ambitions.
In an interview with the (North) Korean Central News Agency, Monday, North Korea's foreign ministry spokesman promised to "make the U.S. take responsibility completely for any destructive outcome" in response to the USS Carl Vinson Strike Group's return to waters off South Korea.