South Korean presidential front-runner Moon Jae-in is pulling ahead in the polls as a May 9 election looms. The 64-year-old civil rights lawyer is viewed as a moderate willing to pursue diplomatic engagement with the erratic and nuclear-armed regime to the North.
Yonhap News Agency reports that Moon, chairman of the Democratic Party of Korea, now has more than a 10-point lead on his primary opponent, software magnate Ahn Cheol-soo of the centrist People’s Party. A recent nationwide survey concluded Moon had an approval rating of 41%, widening his lead over Ahn’s 30% and the distant runner-up Hong Joon-pyo at 9%.
Speaking to TIME in an exclusive interview earlier this month, Moon described his vision as one of “a mature democracy, prosperity, human rights, and peace” on the Korean peninsula. Moon said he was willing to both negotiate with the North Korean regime and work with U.S. President Donald Trump toward those ends, as tensions between them are becoming an urgent security threat for Seoul.
The Trump administration has roused North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un by suggesting it could pursue a “military option” to curb the country’s nuclear missile program. Pyongyang’s goal is to develop a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching the American homeland, but at present it is believed to be capable of devastating U.S. allies South Korea and Japan.
Experts say U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, as well as the country’s capital of more than 10 million people, would almost certainly be targeted in retaliatory attacks if the U.S. advances militarily against North Korea. Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have attempted to pressure China into helping resolve the issue, but warn that the U.S. could act unilaterally if Beijing does not cooperate.
Moon’s position on unilateral action is clear. “Any decision by the U.S. should be made in close consultation with South Korea, its ally,” he told TIME.
“If the U.S. makes a preemptive strike against the North… South Korea will suffer, not the U.S. But that will also cause damage to U.S. troops based in South Korea and to many American citizens living in South Korea,” says Moon. “Human history shows that, even if not intended, an accidental clash can result in war.”
Read TIME’s full interview with Moon Jae-in here.