South Korean liberal wins party primary, poised to become president

Moon Jae-in reacts after winning the nomination as a presidential candidate of the Minjoo Party, during a national convention, in Seoul, South Korea, April 3, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in won the liberal Democratic Party primary vote on Monday, setting him on course to become the next president and perhaps take a softer line on North Korea.

Moon has been leading in opinion polls ahead of the May 9 election to succeed impeached Park Geun-hye, who was dismissed last month over a corruption scandal involving family-run conglomerates, or chaebol.

If elected, Moon, 64, is expected to soften South Korea's policy toward North Korea, possibly delay deployment of a U.S. anti-missile defense system that has enraged China and get tough on corporate criminals, including chaebol bosses.

"I will do everything I have to do to look after the failing standard of people's living, revive the economy and resurrect national security that's been riddled with holes," Moon told an enthusiastic party crowd in his acceptance speech.

In a major policy statement in March, Moon said there was no choice but to recognize Kim Jong Un as the leader of reclusive North Korea and deal with him.

North and South Korea are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North, heavily sanctioned for missile and nuclear tests in breach of UN Security Council resolutions, regularly threatens to destroy the South and its main ally, the United States.

"We can’t deny that the ruler of the North Korean people is Kim Jong Un. We have no choice but to recognize Kim Jong Un as a counterpart, whether we put pressure and impose sanctions on North Korea or hold dialogue," Moon said.

Such an approach may clash with the United States where President Donald Trump has pressed China to do more to rein in the North, and said it may have to deal with Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs on its own if needs be.

Moon has also vowed to end the practice of pardoning convicted corporate criminals and to break up the cozy relationship between big business and the government.

Samsung Group leader Jay Y. Lee is on trial on charges including bribery in return for favors to the conglomerate that has led to the arrest of ousted president Park.

Moon had the backing of 40 percent of the people in a Gallup Korea poll released on Friday, a double digit advantage over Ahn Cheol-soo of the new centrist People's Party.

The two face little in the way of a significant challenge from conservatives, who have 14 percent combined public support according to the Gallup Poll, or the far left.

(Reporting by Jack Kim and Ju-min Park; Editing by Nick Macfie)