(ATTN: UPDATES with additional information in paras 3-5; ADDS photos)
SEOUL, April 20 (Yonhap) -- Presidential front-runner Moon Jae-in refused to publicly call North Korea a main enemy of the state, not because he does not think so but because there is no benefit in it for his country, those close to the candidate said Thursday.
"A person seeking to become the next president, if elected, may be the person who has to personally talk with North Korea to establish peace between the divided Koreas and also work to peacefully reunify the two," a key campaigner for the liberal presidential nominee told Yonhap News Agency.
Moon Jae-in (second from L), the presidential candidate of the liberal Democratic Party, poses for a selfie with his young supporters while visiting the southwestern city of Gwangju on April 18, 2017. (Yonhap)
The remarks came hours after the presidential candidate from the Democratic Party refused to call Pyongyang the main enemy of his country in a nationally televised late-night debate that involved four other presidential candidates.
They were Ahn Cheol-soo of the center-left People's Party, Hong Joon-pyo of the former ruling Liberty Korea Party, Yoo Seong-min of the splinter conservative Bareun Party and Sim Sang-jeung of the progressive Justice Party.
The question about whether Moon considered North Korea the country's main enemy came from Yoo, who noted the communist state is described as the main enemy by the Defense Ministry.
The Defense Ministry on Thursday explained the North has been described only as an enemy since a few years earlier, in an apparent move not to provoke the communist state.
Moon apparently assumed a similar stance when he answered it was not appropriate for him or any other presidential candidate to label North Korea the main enemy.
"I believe such a description is inappropriate for a presidential candidate to say. For the Defense Ministry, it is its job, but for a president, it is not something desirable to say," he said.
The five leading presidential candidates pose for a photo before the start of their second TV debate broadcast April 19, 2017 by local broadcaster KBS. They are (from L) Rep. Sim Sang-jeung of the Justice Party, Hong Joon-pyo of the Liberty Korea Party, Rep. Yoo Seong-min of the Bareun Party, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic party and Ahn Cheol-soo of the People's Party. (Yonhap)
His remarks could still backfire as they came amid growing military tension here over what South Korean and U.S. military intelligence have called a possible North Korean nuclear test in the near future.
They may have also raised questions among many voters here who have been told by Moon's conservative opponents that the liberal presidential hopeful may be pro-North Korea.
Moon's campaigner, while speaking on condition of anonymity, repeated the candidate only sought to unnecessarily provoke North Korea.
"It means a president will not be able to ask North Korea to hold dialogue after declaring the North the main enemy," he said.
"Also, there is a need to separate North Korean people from the North's communist regime."