Top presidential candidates tackle Thaad, North Korea in first debate
Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP), Ahn Cheol-soo of the minor opposition People's Party and Sim Sang-jeung of the progressive Justice Party took part in the two-hour debate at a KBS studio with just over a month left until presidential election.
The candidates especially clashed over foreign affairs and security issues, namely in regard to the additional deployment of an antimissile system and how to deal with North Korea and tackle Sino-U.S. tensions.
Yoon recently pledged additional deployment of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system.
Lee said that Thaad doesn't help with the defense of the Seoul metropolitan area and asked Yoon, "Why are you trying to bring on backlash from China and ruin the economy?"
Yoon replied, "When security is strong, stock prices are steady, and national risk is reduced."
When Sim asked Yoon about his remarks supporting a pre-emptive attack on North Korea last month, which raised controversy, the PPP candidate said, "We are not trying to wage war, but deter it," saying that a Kill Chain strike system helps to "preserve peace."
Yoon said that if he is elected president, he will first meet with the leaders of the United States, Japan, China and North Korea.
He said that the liberal government has practiced diplomacy friendly to China and North Korea, and said that he plans to "prioritize restoring relations with the United States and Japan."
Lee in turn said, "Practical diplomacy centered on national interest is important. There is no need to decide whether the United States, China or North Korea comes first. It is important to negotiate and meet the most effective partner at the most useful and effective time."
Ahn said he prioritizes the South Korea-U.S. alliance and will meet with the U.S. president, followed by the leaders of China, North Korea and Japan.
Sim stressed the importance of reviving talks between Pyongyang and Washington, and said as president, she will first meet with the North Korean leader and then the U.S. president.
Yoon, a former prosecutor general, came down on Lee over the Daejang-dong land development controversy dating back to the DP candidate's time as mayor of Seongnam in Gyeonggi. He noted that Kim Man-bae, the owner of asset management company Hwacheon Daeyu at the center of the corruption scandal, said that the land development project's design was in accordance to the mayor's instruction, and questioned whether it was designed with costs and profits in mind.
Lee fended off the attacks and stressed, "I never made any profits." He called to refer to a parliamentary audit which he said cleared any questions.
Addressing the current administration's real estate policy issues, Lee and Ahn proposed political consensus to expand housing supplies, while Yoon called to ease loan regulations and Sim called to lower housing prices.
Lee also distanced himself from the current Moon Jae-in administration when asked by Ahn if he was the "successor" to the current administration. Instead, he replied, "I want to create a new Lee Jae-myung government."
In a rare sign of unity, all four candidates agreed on a national pension reform in accordance to a proposal made by Ahn.
They also discussed their views on a supplementary government budget for Covid-19 relief, energy policy and carbon neutrality.
Contrary to expectation, controversies related to the wives of Lee and Yoon were not brought up during the debate. Former Gyeonggi Gov. Lee's wife, Kim Hye-kyung, has recently been embroiled in controversy over allegations that civil servants ran personal errands for her. Yoon's wife, Kim Keon-hee, has also faced backlash about her falsified job resume and alleged involvement in shamanism. Recordings of phone calls between Kim and a liberal journalist disclosed last month suggested she may have tried to meddle in her husband's election campaign. She also suggested that DP politicians do not pay off sexual assault victims enough, apparently downplaying the "Me Too" movement.
When pressed by Sim, Yoon apologized to a sexual assault victim who helped set in motion Korea's "Me Too" movement for his wife's remarks.
The debate was aired simultaneously from 8 p.m. by the three terrestrial broadcasters KBS, MBC and SBS and received a cumulative viewership rating of 39 percent, the second highest for a presidential debate to date. The record is a viewership of 55.7 percent in the 1997 election which eventually resulted in the victory of President Kim Dae-jung.
Lee and Yoon tried to schedule a one-on-one debate over the Lunar New Year holiday, but were unable to come to a settlement. Instead, Lee held a two-way debate on YouTube with minor presidential candidate, former Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon.
The four major presidential candidates are scheduled to hold three more televised debates leading up to the March 9 election. They will focus on economics on Feb. 21, politics on Feb. 25 and social issues on March 2.
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]