In the first televised debate for this year's election held late Tuesday, Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party and Moon Jae-in of the main opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) moved to defend their policies while pointing out their rivals' weaknesses.
The two were joined by the candidate of the left-leaning minor opposition Unified Progressive Party (UPP), Lee Jung-hee.
Saenuri Party's presidential hopeful Park Geun-hye said selecting the right leader is critical because it can decide whether the country moves forward or fails to make headway and falls behind in the world.
"There are plenty of signs that conditions will get worse next year and if we are to overcome such challenges there should be a president who can help consolidate the wishes of the public," the 60-year-old candidate said.
National unity has been a key pledge made by the Saenuri hopeful, as well emphasizing the fact that among the candidates she is best qualified to lead the country in times of uncertainty.
Park pledged that if she wins the Dec. 19 election, she will focus all her energy on improving the livelihoods of the people.
"I plan to restore the middle class and open an era where 70 percent of the people become middle class citizens," she said.
On the issue of political reforms, the contender said she recognized that the public has become alienated from people in power and that there is a need for sweeping change.
She called for full-fledged efforts to push for the giving up of vested right by people in power, and breaking what she called a "ring of corruption" as well as the introduction of various policy measures that can deal with those that break the law.
The five-term lawmaker who gave up her seat to run for president said that once she quits politics once and for all, she will donate her wealth to the public, including the controversial 600 million won (US$553,000) she received from former president Chun Doo-hwan after the assassination of her father in 1979. Chun took power with the help of the military in 1980 and by bloody suppression of dissent.
In the field of diplomacy, the conservative candidate observed that Northeast Asia was experiencing significant change. She said to deal effectively with shifts in power and handle uncertainties that mainly stem from North Korea's nuclear ambitions, she will adhere to a policy directive that is based on trust, strengthening the traditional alliance with the United States while upgrading relations with China and "skillfully" handling ties with Japan.
She then forwarded the creation of a Northeast Asian peace initiative that would pool resources to solve outstanding issues.
Park, the daughter of late President Park Chung-hee, said that in regards to North Korea, she will respect all the formal agreements signed between Seoul and Pyongyang, from the July 4th North-South Joint Statement reached in 1972 under her father all the way up to the Oct. 4 Joint Declaration signed in 2007 under late President Roh Moo-hyun.
She, however, made clear that while she will engage in talks to resolve differences with North Korea, there will be no compromise on national security and she was committed to getting the communist country to give up its nuclear weapons program.
She added that there should be a distinction between "real" and "false" peace.
"Peace that is maintained by currying favor and giving money is not real peace," she argued, a remark aimed at the policies favored by past liberal governments.
She said there is a need to send a clear message that if the North engages in adventurism it will have to pay the price.
On the issue of trade, and in particular, the free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States, she said she was open to renegotiation on clauses linked to investor state dispute arbitration.
The DUP's Moon said in the two-hour-long debate that he too favored creating a policy of reconciliation and change.
"The reason why I entered politics in the first place was to bring about change," the 58-year-old first-term lawmaker said.
He conceded that the Roh Moo-hyun administration failed to meet the expectations of the people in many respects but it did push forward democracy to the next level.
Moon, who was chief of staff to Roh, said that if elected to office he would advocate a leadership of open exchange with the people and place honesty above all else.
The human rights lawyer then said he planned to disperse the power of the chief executive that has been cited as the cause of many political woes and in-fighting and create a policy cooperation panel made up of ruling and opposition leaders to reduce partisan conflict.
He said this was needed because no less than 47 people in power including relatives of the current president have been arrested or under investigation.
"This administration is a department store of corruption," he claimed.
The candidate also pointed out that Saenuri's Park engaged in negative campaigning by making unfounded accusations and that such practices should be halted.
In regards to North Korean issues and national defense, Moon emphasized that while progressives, including the UPP, were vague on North Korea's planned rocket launch, the DUP's stance was firm.
He, however, said that while he was confident that he would be the best candidate to safeguard the country's security, he wanted to open talks with North Korea as they could benefit national security as well as the national economy.
"Close ties with the North can create a single 80 million-strong economy and herald the beginning of Korea's per capita reaching US$30,000," he said. At present per capital GDP stands at around $20,000 for South Korea.
He then said that while conservatives stressed the importance of national security, it was under the current administration that conflict with the North has escalated and concerns were raised about the preparedness of the military.
On the controversial Northern Limit Line issue, he clarified that despite allegations to the contrary, he considered it as the sea border with North Korea and that it must be defended at all costs.
"It is regrettable that I have had to repeat myself on this issue several times," he said, hinting that Saenuri was trying to use this as a political tool to attack his stance on national security.
The DUP candidate then criticized the incumbent Lee Myung-bak administration for engaging in a policy that was overly inclined toward the United States, which in turn adversely affected relations with countries such as China, a growing economic power.
"There is a need to seek balance that can allow Seoul to strengthen ties with China, Russia and Japan," he said.
He said that he advocated revision to the FTA with the United States, and cited the need to correct the dispute resolution clause as something that should be addressed.
Moon, who has been trailing Park in most polls since the start of the official election period, said that presidential elections were about judging the past five years of government and how their lives have fared.
"If people believe the administration did not do a good job they should vote for change," he said, adding that he was the right person to open a new era.
The UPP's Lee, on the other hand, devoted most of her time to attacking the policies and past of the Saenuri candidate.
She said that only when the progressive party takes power will there be meaningful change. The 42-year-old former lawmaker and lawyer also made clear that while her party was engaged in talks that could lead to her quitting the race, she was taking part in the TV debate with the sole aim of preventing Park from becoming president.
Political pundits said that Park and Moon were in general, restrained and wanted to convey an image that they were the most qualified to take charge of the country, although they tried to point out the weaknesses of their opponent.
"Overall they wanted to attract the 6-7 percent swing voters that pollsters said still exist that could help turn the election in their favor," a watcher said. They, however, said that because Lee focused most of her criticisms against Park and questioned her qualifications to rule from the outset, the TV debate became a fight between the Saenuri and UPP participants, rather than a sparring over policies between Park and Moon.
The debate is the first of three that has been organized under South Korea's presidential election law with the next planned for Monday and the last set for Dec. 16.
Following the debate, both the ruling and opposition parties said their candidate won.
"Park's debate focused on the future and her leadership qualities and this showed during the debate process," a spokesman said.
He said the debate showed Park was the right person to bring about national unity.
The conservative party also blasted Lee for adversely affecting the quality of the debate.
The DUP said that its candidate was the winner since he was able to convey his extensive experience and ability to take charge of the country.
"Moon showed he could lead through cooperation that clearly differentiated him from Park," the party said in a press release.