SEOUL Moon Jae-in, the most popular South Korean opposition presidential candidate, said on Friday that if elected this year he would offer no strings attached economic aid to North Korea in a radical departure from current policy that has seen ties between the two states frozen.
Moon, 59, a former human rights lawyer and confidant of ex-president Roh Moo-hyun whose policies of openness to the North were overturned by conservative President Lee Myung-bak, said that engagement was key to moving beyond the current stalemate between the two states, which remain technically at war.
"I would like to handle North Korea issues comprehensively. The current Lee Myung-bak administration has certain preconditions to resume talks with Pyongyang, saying we will not respond to the North unless it gives up its nuclear ambition. However, such approach makes both sides hard to take a step further," Moon told journalists at a briefing.
There have been signs recently that North Korea's new ruler Kim Jong-un is more willing to open up than his father who he succeeded in December in a bid to revive the impoverished country's ailing economy, which is fraction of the size of the South's.
Kim's right hand man and uncle Jang Song-thaek is currently in Beijing seeking greater economic cooperation with China, its sole major ally, and Moon warned that unless South Korea took the lead, the North would fall completely into China's orbit.
South Koreans will elect a new president in December and Moon has 10 percent poll support versus conservative candidate Park Geun-hye's 36 percent approval rating, according to pollster Gallup.
Park, the daughter of South Korea's assassinated dictator Park Chung-hee, has also pledged to improve ties with North Korea, although she says the North would have to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions before Seoul would reach out.
Moon's opposition Democratic United Party will hold its primary on September 16, while Park's Saenuri party will hold its primary on Monday.
(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)