How South Korea's election could affect relations with Pyongyang

A win for presidential favourite Moon Jae-in could see a friendlier approach to country's northern neighbour

South Korea election
Voters cast their ballot in Seoul
(Image credit: Jean Chung/Getty Images)

South Korea heads to the polls today to vote on a successor for former president Park Geun-Hye, who was impeached in March and is now awaiting trial on corruption charges.

Voting comes at a time of heated tensions on the Korean peninsula and the winner could transform the country's fraught relationship with North Korea - and threaten its ties with the US.

Main contender Moon Jae-in, 64, is heading into election day with an 18-point lead over his nearest rival, centrist Ahn Cheol-soo, 55.

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The liberal is a proponent of the so-called "sunshine policy" of engagement with Pyongyang developed in the late 1990s, when the South shipped billions of dollars' worth of food and humanitarian aid over the border in the hopes of persuading its northern neighbour to de-escalate its nuclear programme.

However, the failure of the scheme saw South Korea harden its attitude to such a point that it "cut almost all ties" with the North, says the BBC.

Moon has criticised this hardline approach as ineffective and vowed to "bring the relationship between South and North to peace, economic cooperation and mutual prosperity", Newsweek reports.

He also backs the re-opening of the Kaesong Industrial Region, a shared area on the border which was closed down last year, and has called for more dialogue with Pyongyang.

Such a policy would represent "a sharp turn from South Korea's current tough approach" and risks putting Seoul on a "collision course" with Donald Trump, says CBC.

However, there is scope to imagine a more cooperative partnership between the US President and Moon, if he wins.

Both are hands-on when it comes to negotiations, with Trump mooting the idea of meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un "under the right circumstances" and Moon saying Seoul must "take the lead" in dealing with the North.

He also told the Washington Post that he and Trump were "on the same page" in believing that the previous US policy of "strategic patience" had been a failure.

Saying he believed Trump is "more reasonable than he is generally perceived", Moon praised the US President's advocacy of "burger diplomacy" - literally opting for a chat over a burger rather than a formal summit.

"I am for that kind of pragmatic approach to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue," he said.

He has also argued for an open and conciliatory attitude towards Pyongyang as being the best route to eventual reunification - still a cherished dream for many in the South, despite more than 60 years of separation.

North Korea appears to agree. South Korea's Yonhap news agency reports that on Monday, North Korean state newspaper Rodong Sinmun said the election represented a chance to end the "inter-Korea confrontation" in favour of "a new era of unification".

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