SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's two main presidential contenders clashed on Tuesday in a debate over security policy as North Korea readied a rocket launch that is timed to coincide with the South's December 19 election.
Both conservative Park Geun-hye, the daughter of South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, and leftist Moon Jae-in have pledged to engage with North Korea, although Moon has offered unconditional talks with the reclusive and impoverished state in a bid to improve relations between the two Koreas.
"I will reopen the door to peace," Moon said in the televised debate, adding he would restart all commercial projects and exchanges with the North that had been halted under incumbent President Lee Myung-bak.
Park called on North Korea to stop its planned rocket launch, saying it would deepen the impoverished state's isolation.
"We must have strong deterrent at times of provocation by the North while trying to devise a relationship based on trust, which will bring real peace. Unconditional aid is fake peace."
Most polls show that Park has a small lead over Moon, but that remains within the margin of error, indicating a tight race, although Park appears to be more trusted when it comes to dealing with the North which remains technically at war with the South after an armistice ended the 1950-53 Korean War.
A poll by the conservative Asan Institute conducted after North Korea announced it would carry out a satellite launch in December showed that 44.8 percent trusted Park to deal with inter-Korean relations versus 40.6 percent for Moon.
Tensions between the two Koreas have risen sharply under incumbent President Lee, whose single term ends in February and who cut off aid to the North.
South Korea accused the North of sinking one of its warships in 2010 and North Korean forces shelled a South Korean island in the same year, the first time a direct attack on South Korean soil killed civilians since the Korean War.
The North's planned rocket launch, slated for some time between December 10-22, has been condemned by the South, the United States, Japan and Russia as it is seen as a means of testing a long-range missile that could one day deliver a nuclear warhead.
North Korea is banned from conducting tests relating to its missile and nuclear programmes under United Nations resolutions imposed after it undertook nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, although Pyongyang insists its rocket programme is peaceful.
The number of South Koreans who support giving unconditional food aid to the North had fallen to 8.2 percent in a poll conducted by broadcaster KBS in August from 14.3 percent in 2010 as tensions between the two states have risen.
Despite the spike in tension and increasingly shrill rhetoric from the North, the South Korean presidential election is being fought mostly over economic issues.
The top concerns of Korean voters are job security, especially for people in their 20s who often end up in temporary jobs, social welfare and more equity in a country where income gaps have risen sharply.
The latest data shows that South Korea's economy is growing slowly if unspectacularly thanks to the global economic crisis.
Growth slowed to just 1.9 percent on an annual basis in the third quarter of 2012, according to government statistics, from an average of 5.5 percent a year over the past four decades.
Writing by David Chance; Editing by Robert Birsel