SEOUL, South Korea – 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.
The question is: 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.
This matters because 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. Those countries are undergoing political changes and have been waiting for a new South Korean leader before making any big decisions on North Korea policy.
Washington, especially, is keen to see who will take over when Lee leaves in February. U.S. policy toughened after the embarrassing collapse of an aid-for-nuclear-freeze deal with Pyongyang following a failed April rocket launch attempt by North Korea. However, barring more rocket or nuclear tests from Pyongyang or other acts Washington considers provocative, a new thaw on the Korean Peninsula could eventually provide Barack Obama with a cover to pursue more talks meant to encourage North Korean nuclear disarmament.
The need for more dialogue and aid for Pyongyang is one of the few things the South Korean candidates — conservative Park Geun-hye and liberal Moon Jae-in — agree on.
Many South Koreans are frustrated with Lee's efforts on North Korea. His policy links large-scale government aid to North Korea making progress on past commitments to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Instead of disarmament progress, though, the last five years have seen nuclear and missile tests — including Wednesday's rocket launch — deadly skirmishes and all-around simmering nastiness between the rival Koreas.
Park and Lee are members of the same conservative political party, so her comments on greater engagement and aid have been striking. They also stand out because Park is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, South Korea's late anti-communist dictator.
While Park's rhetoric on North Korea has hardened after Wednesday's launch, there's no plan to change her underlying policy, her aides say: She still envisions aid shipments, talks meant to spur reconciliation and the restart of some large-scale economic initiatives as progress occurs on the nuclear issue. The aid would be goods that can't be used for military purposes.
Park has also held out the possibility of a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but only if it's "an honest dialogue on issues of mutual concern." She'll also push for progress on nuclear disarmament, human rights and other sensitive issues and says North Korea will pay the price for any provocations.
Her North Korea policy is seen as thin on specifics, however, and there could be limits to her outreach. Many in Park's political party and conservative base have strong anti-North Korea feelings that could be an impediment if she pushes ahead with serious talks.
Moon, on the other hand, intends to quickly resume shipments of government-level food aid to North Korea, though details of how much aid would be worked out if he wins, aides say. He also wants an early summit with North Korea's Kim. His policy isn't influenced by the latest rocket launch, his aides say.
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 Pyongyang. Lee replaced Roh in early 2008.
For Moon, aggressive engagement isn't a reward for North Korean nuclear movement; it's the means to transforming 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 John Delury, a North Korea analyst at Seoul's Yonsei University.
Moon's candidacy has some in Washington worried about the return of the tension and anti-U.S. feelings that marked Roh's term — that "the ghosts of the anti-Americanism of the South Korean left will rise again," according to Delury.
The North's rocket launch was magnified because of its timing. Obama will be inaugurated in January to his second term, Japan and South Korea both have national elections this month, and China has just formed a new leadership. But the test is probably not going to "blunt South Korea's desire for renewed inter-Korean dialogue as a necessary step toward stabilizing peninsular relations," Scott Snyder, a Koreas specialist for the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote recently.
The Obama administration has consistently emphasized its solidarity with Seoul, and that rhetoric is unlikely to change, whoever is elected.
A rocket launch could actually "solve any alliance split problems" between Washington and either of the South Korean candidates by forcing a more unified stance, said Victor Cha, a former senior Asia adviser in President George W. Bush's administration.
Washington could also be willing to give either Park or Moon some leeway in reaching out to North Korea if it leads to movement on nuclear disarmament, the issue the United States cares most about. During a November visit to Myanmar, Obama said a decision by North Korea to give up its nuclear aspirations would result in "an extended hand" from the United States.
"A more flexible policy from Seoul also gives the Obama administration more political cover to try another overture toward the North," said Ralph Cossa, president of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Hawaii-based think tank.
Much will come down to the way North Korea treats the new South Korean leader. Pyongyang may expect, for instance, Moon to deliver everything his liberal predecessors promised, something seen as impossible in the current political environment. Pyongyang could also dismiss Park's attempts at engagement, dooming talks before they begin. North Korean media routinely criticize Park's North Korea policy as insincere and confrontational.
North Korea considers the United States, against which it fought during the 1950-53 Korean War, a major enemy. Seoul, on the other hand, is labeled a puppet of Washington, which has more than 28,000 soldiers stationed in South Korea.
"At the end of the day," Cossa said, "it will be the North's willingness, or not, to treat the South as a sovereign equal that will make meaningful dialogue possible, regardless of who is elected."
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report.