Moon Jae-in, polled as the strongest candidate to become South Korea's next president, has revised his soft and liberal attitude to North Korea as security emerged as a top and stringent election issue that can sway swing voters in favor of his rival.
Moon from the main opposition Democratic Party commands strong support from liberal voters but he has been disfavored by conservative groups for advocating cross-border reconciliation at the expense of traditional ties with the United States.
With less than a month left before the May 9 election, the former pro-democracy activist changed his election platform to take a tough stance against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un while expressing conciliatory remarks at US President Donald Trump.
Definitely, the change was prompted by widespread public anxiety over a spike in inter-Korean military tensions that helped his political rival and former colleague, Ahn Cheol-soo of the People's Party, claw his way up with unexpected support from conservative voters.
With the gap between them narrowing quickly, Moon stressed there should be no ideological division in coping with a security crisis. "If North Korea pushes ahead with a nuclear test, the Kim Jong-un regime will be in danger."
During his stumping tour this week, the liberal candidate warned that Kim would go to the road of "self-destruction" unless he stops provocations.
"If there is another calamity of war the Korean peninsula, I will carry the gun with me to guard public life and state security," Moon said. "I warn North Korea clearly that we have been patient enough and there is a limit to our patience. I sternly and clearly warn the Kim Jong-un regime against going to the road of self-destruction."
The most visible change in his policy was about the deployment of a THAAD system that has strained ties between Beijing and Seoul. Moon used to oppose the US missile shield but he is now receptive citing the inevitability of its installation in South Korea.
"If North Korea sticks to its nuclear provocation and China can not deter it, they should know that the THAAD deployment is inevitable. It depends entirely on North Korea's attitude and on China's efforts," he said, urging Pyongyang to return to the dialogue table for the complete dismantlement of its nuclear program.
"I strongly call on China. The decision on the THAAD deployment is a matter of South Korea's sovereignty, and any economic retaliation against the deployment must immediately stop," Moon said.
Like conservative candidates, he portrayed himself as a national leader better fitted for crisis management and pledged an increase in defense spending to build an independent missile defense system and strengthen South Korea's war capability and deterrence against North Korea.
Reversing his earlier pledge to visit Pyongyang first, Moon said that if elected, he would visit the United States at the earliest date for talks with Trump on North Korea.
"I will be a president that Kim Jong-un fears the most, a president the United States trusts the most and one that China may believe in the most," he said, calling for close cooperation with Washington, China, Japan and Russia.
Lim Chang-won = firstname.lastname@example.org