Seoul AP

It is not too early to predict one sure winner of South Korea’s presidential election next week: North Korea. President Lee Myung Bak’s hardline approach to Pyongyang is going away, no matter who replaces him, but just how soft will Seoul go?

Not even Pyongyang’s successful launch of a long-range rocket Wednesday has changed the determination of both the liberal and conservative candidates in South Korea to pursue policies of engagement, aid and reconciliation with the North.

Whoever wins the presidential Blue House on Dec. 19 will set the initial tone for new North Korea policy, not just in Seoul but in Washington, Beijing and Tokyo, which have all been waiting for a new South Korean leader before making any big policy decisions on Pyongyang.

Many South Koreans are frustrated with Lee’s efforts regarding North Korea, and his policy of linking large-scale government aid to Pyongyang making progress on past commitments to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Instead of disarmament progress, though, the past five years have seen nuclear and missile tests, deadly skirmishes and all-around simmering nastiness between the rival Koreas.

The need for more dialogue and aid for Pyongyang is one of the few things the leading South Korean presidential candidates, conservative Park Geun Hye and liberal Moon Jae In, agree on. Park and Lee are members of the same political party, so her comments on greater engagement and aid have been striking.

While Park’s rhetoric on North Korea has hardened since Wednesday’s launch, there is no plan to change her underlying policy. She still envisions aid shipments, talks to spur reconciliation and the restart of some large-scale economic initiatives as progress occurs on the nuclear issue. The aid would be goods the North’s military can’t use.

Moon intends to quickly resume shipments of government-level food aid to Pyongyang, and he also wants an early summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. His policy isn’t influenced by the latest rocket launch, his aides said.

Moon is a protege of the late liberal President Roh Moo Hyun, a champion of the so-called Sunshine Policy of no-strings-attached aid to North Korea. For Moon, aggressive engagement is the means to transform the relationship so that “North Korea has an economic stake in a more moderate foreign policy and eventually has even an economic stake in denuclearization,” said North Korea analyst John Delury.

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