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Liberal front-runner in S. Korean race wins party nomination

Associated Press logo Associated Press 3/04/2017 By HYUNG-JIN KIM, Associated Press
South Korea's opposition party Democratic Party leader Moon Jae-in celebrates after winning the nomination as the party's presidential candidate during a party's presidential primary in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, April 3, 2017. Moon who advocates improved ties with rival North Korea has become his party's candidate in next month's election of a successor to recently ousted President Park Geun-hye. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man) © The Associated Press South Korea's opposition party Democratic Party leader Moon Jae-in celebrates after winning the nomination as the party's presidential candidate during a party's presidential primary in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, April 3, 2017. Moon who advocates improved ties with rival North Korea has become his party's candidate in next month's election of a successor to recently ousted President Park Geun-hye. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

SEOUL, South Korea — A liberal South Korean opposition leader who wants to improve ties with rival North Korea and pursue sweeping reforms became his party's presidential candidate Monday, boosting his status as front-runner in next month's election of a successor to recently ousted President Park Geun-hye.

If Moon Jae-in is elected, it would end nearly a decade of conservative rule in South Korea, during which ties with North Korea have plunged to one of the lowest points in decades due to the North's nuclear and missile tests and the South's response. Analysts say Moon's softer approach toward North Korea could produce discord with Washington.

Moon's popularity has surged since last fall, when a high-profile corruption scandal involving Park and a confidante flared. Millions took to the streets and called for Park's ouster, leading parliament to impeach her in December and the Constitutional Court to formally end her rule in March. Prosecutors arrested and jailed Park last week.

Moon, who lost the 2012 election to Park, received a second chance to run for the presidency by winning the Democratic Party's nomination in party voting that ended Monday. In a victory speech, Moon said if elected he would try to eradicate corruption, heal a deepening conservative-liberal divide and strengthen national security.

Moon didn't touch upon North Korea. But he has previously called Park's hard-line North Korea policy a failure, saying it's time to use both sanctions and dialogue to persuade the North to resume negotiations on ending its nuclear and missile programs. He has also been highly critical of Park's decision to let the United States place a high-tech missile defense system in South Korea that has angered both North Korea and China.

Moon's stance could trigger "a certain level of friction or discord" with the government of U.S. President Donald Trump, which has signaled a tougher stance toward North Korea, said Lim Eul Chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea's Kyungnam University. But Lim said Moon isn't likely to take any drastic reconciliation measures because North Korea "has gone too far" in its nuclear program in recent years.

Moon, 64, previously worked as chief of staff for former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, who espoused greater reconciliation with North Korea. Roh's cooperation projects with North Korea were suspended by his conservative successors including Park, who pushed for a tougher response to North Korea's nuclear program. Critics say that policy allowed North Korea to advance its bomb program while talks remained suspended.

Currently, Moon is the favorite in opinion polls for the May 9 election, but analysts say some of his rivals might join forces to field a single candidate in an attempt to defeat Moon, a common practice in South Korean presidential races. No serious attempt to launch a joint anti-Moon front has yet occurred.

Moon's main challenger is moderate Ahn Cheol-soo, who a recent poll indicated would beat Moon in a hypothetical two-way matchup but would lose in a multi-person race. Almost all other recent surveys have shown Moon enjoying comfortable leads in both multi-candidate and two-way polls against any of his competitors.

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This story has been corrected to fix spelling of Moon's name to Moon Jae-in.

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