Moon Jae-in, a presidential candidate of South Korea's biggest Minjoo Party, speaks during a campaign for the upcoming presidential election in Seoul, South Korea on April 13, 2017. The country's presidential elections will take place on May 9. (Xinhua/Lee Sang-ho)
SEOUL, April 13 (Xinhua) -- Five major South Korean presidential candidates had heated discussions Thursday in the first TV debate, with less than a month left before an early presidential election.
The presidential by-election is scheduled for May 9 as former President Park Geun-hye was impeached on March 10 and arrested three weeks later over corruption allegations. The three-week election campaign period is to kick off next week.
The first debate was centered on security issues as geopolitical risks escalated following the news reports that the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and its accompanying battleships re-routed and headed to the Korean Peninsula.
The rare re-routing of the U.S. super carrier boosted worry here about a possible U.S. airstrike on nuclear facilities of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).
All of the South Korean presidential contenders agreed to the importance of blocking any military conflict on the peninsula, but they showed subtle difference in ways to resolve a possible security crisis.
Moon Jae-in of the biggest Minjoo Party, a frontrunner in recent opinion polls, said he would immediately have a phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump to make sure his firm opposition to any unilateral pre-emptive strike on the DPRK without South Korea's consent.
And then, he would ask the DPRK through various channels to immediately stop any provocation, which can lead to the U.S. attack, while cooperating with China in the meantime.
Ahn Cheol-soo of the centrist People's Party, a runner-up in opinion surveys, said he would first have phone calls with U.S. and Chinese leaders, before announcing a statement to ask the DPRK to stop any provocations.
Hong Joon-pyo of the former ruling Liberty Korea Party and Yoo Seong-min of the minor conservative Righteous Party opened a possibility for the U.S. strike though they emphasized that any military action should be shunned.
The other key issue on security was the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system, which Seoul and Washington agreed in July last year to deploy in southeast South Korea.
Two mobile launchers and a part of elements of the THAAD battery were delivered on March 6 to a U.S. military base in South Korea. One battery is composed of six mobile launchers, 48 interceptors, the AN/TPY-2 radar and the fire and control unit.
Sim Sang-jung of the minor progressive Justice Party showed the clearest position in an opposition to the THAAD deployment, saying THAAD is incapable of defending against the DPRK's nuclear-tipped missiles.
THAAD is designed to intercept incoming missiles at an altitude of 40-150 km. Pyongyang has capability to avoid the intercepting range as hundreds of DPRK missiles targeting South Korea flies at an altitude of less than 40 km.
Sim said the so-called "THAAD panacea" insistence on the U.S. missile shield capable of shooting down all DPRK missiles would be of no help to national security, and that any attempt to politicize security issues would be the most dangerous security policy.
Yoo Seong-min of the Righteous Party, who insisted on South Korea's purchase of two more THAAD batteries in addition to the deployment of the U.S. missile defense system operated by the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), agreed with Sim's claim on a harmful effect from the security issue politicization.
Moon reiterated his stance that the THAAD issue must be relayed to next government, while Ahn said it would be hard to reverse the THAAD deployment decision, which he described as an agreement between governments, in a stark contrast to his party's opposition to THAAD in South Korea.
Ahn's change in stance on THAAD seemed to have considered conservative voters, many of whom have yet to be informed of how THAAD operates and still believe THAAD is capable of intercepting DPRK missiles.
Support for Ahn, especially among the elderly conservative voters, jumped recently as the voters failed to find an outstanding conservative politician following the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye, who was once viewed as a political icon in the conservative bloc.