SEOUL • Former United Nations chief Ban Ki Moon has yet to formally announce his candidacy for the presidential election, but he is taking aim at the race's front runner.
At a debate hosted this week by the Kwanhun Club, an association of senior journalists, Mr Ban hit out at Mr Moon Jae In for flip-flopping in his stance on the deployment of a United States anti-missile system.
South Korea decided last year to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) to counter missile and nuclear threats from the North, but the deal could be derailed by the political paralysis in Seoul.
Mr Moon, who is leading Mr Ban in popularity polls, has said the next administration should reconsider the deployment.
But in an apparent reversal, he recently told local media that the plan cannot easily be cancelled.
Mr Ban, who supports the Thaad deployment, said on Wednesday: "(Mr Moon) has been going back and forth. As criticism rises, he is now reversing himself."
OUT OF TOUCH
He has spent his entire life on the sunny side.
MR MOON JAE IN, an opposition leader who comes in ahead of Mr Ban in surveys on presidential hopefuls.
Having served as UN secretary-general, I have no personal greed for any specific position. It is only to change our politics, to take our country to a higher level and to renew hopes for our people that I have decided to give my all.
MR BAN KI MOON, denying that his personal ambition is fuelling his potential bid for the country's top office.
Mr Ban also took aim at Mr Moon's views on national security.
"The people are nervous over Mr Moon's national security policy," he said, pointing to what he saw as Mr Moon's ambivalence over inter-Korean issues.
Mr Ban, 72, also said he did not have any "personal ambition" for a powerful state position.
"Having served as UN secretary-general, I have no personal greed for any specific position," he said.
"It is only to change our politics, to take our country to a higher level and to renew hopes for our people that I have decided to give my all."
Mr Ban, who returned home on Jan 12, has yet to make an official announcement but is largely deemed the strongest candidate to represent the conservative camp.
As Mr Ban criss-crossed the country after his return, paying homage to the dead at national cemeteries and shaking hands with street vendors, his detractors trailed him, holding signs that called him "an opportunist", or worse.
"He has spent his entire life on the sunny side," said Mr Moon, 63, who announced his candidacy last month.
"He is not the kind who shares the people's desperate desire for change."
A survey showed that Mr Ban's approval rating stood at 18 per cent, lagging far behind Mr Moon's 34.8 per cent rating, which has kept the lead for 14 weeks straight.
Mr Lee Hae Chan, who served as prime minister when Mr Ban was foreign minister from 2004 to 2006, called Mr Ban "a diplomat who looks twice but does not leap".
Mr Ban won his UN job 10 years ago with the support of then President Roh Moo Hyun, a progressive who handpicked him as a candidate. Mr Moon, who is from Minjoo Party, once served as Mr Roh's chief of staff.
Critics called Mr Ban a turncoat when he later appeared to align himself closely with conservatives, including President Park Geun Hye. His popularity as a presidential contender has plummeted in the wake of Ms Park's scandal.
Local media has speculated that he might join the newly launched conservative Bareun Party, which broke away from the ruling Saenuri Party.
Back in Mr Ban's home province of Chungcheong, pride in him is compared to a personality cult by his critics.
One fan, Mr Kim Ki Tae, feared that Mr Ban might not survive the thrust and parry of domestic politics.
"I wonder why he risks ruining his image by entering domestic politics," he said. "It's a mud pit, and he could end up losing all."
KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, NYTIMES