(ATTN: CHANGES slug, headline; RECASTS throughout with candidates' reactions to N. Korea's rocket launch, campaign trails, Ahn Cheol-soo's future plan; CHANGES photos)
SEOUL, Dec. 12 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's rocket launch took center stage on the South Korean presidential campaign trail Wednesday as both ruling party candidate Park Geun-hye and main opposition contender Moon Jae-in condemned the blast-off as a violation of United Nations resolutions and a threat to international security.
The North launched a three-stage long-range rocket from the country's northwest earlier in the day in defiance of international demand to abandon the plan. South Korea, the United States and other nations have viewed the launch as a disguised ballistic missile test in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, while North Korea has insisted its aim was to put a satellite into orbit.
North Korean officials said the launch was a success and the satellite has entered orbit.
With South Korea's presidential election only seven days away, the race quickly turned into a test of the candidates' competence concerning national security issues.
Speaking at a rally in the southeastern port city of Pohang, Park, the 60-year-old standard-bearer of the ruling Saenuri Party, denounced the launch as a "frontal challenge" against the international community.
"It is a provocation not only against the Republic of Korea (South Korea), but also against the world," she said. "North Korea has always tried to intervene in (South Korea's) presidential elections, and it is once again testing our people."
The conservative contender, a daughter of late authoritarian President Park Chung-hee, accused the opposition of embracing certain pro-North forces within the liberal camp and called on voters to pick the party "with a clear idea of statehood."
Park's eight-stop campaign trail also took her through other conservative strongholds in Ulsan, Gyeongju and her hometown of Daegu.
She is scheduled to finish the day in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, which, along with South Chungcheong Province, is considered a key battleground due to its unpredictability in past presidential elections.
Moon, the 59-year-old candidate of the main opposition Democratic United Party (DUP), headed straight to Cheongju, about 137 kilometers south of Seoul.
Speaking shortly after the North's launch, the former chief of staff to the late President Roh Moo-hyun made clear that the long-range rocket was a disguised missile test that went against U.N. resolutions.
"I firmly oppose any action by North Korea that threatens peace on the Korean Peninsula," he said. "I urge North Korea to act as a responsible member of the international community."
The liberal contender also claimed that the launch revealed the incompetence of the Saenuri Party and that of the present administration, which he said were unable to detect signs of the launch in advance.
Reports Tuesday cited a military source as saying the North had removed the rocket from the launch pad.
Moon also noted that the government was apparently unaware of the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il last December until the communist nation had announced it.
After stopping in Gongju, Boryeong and Seosan, all in South Chungcheong Province, the DUP contender visited Pyeongtaek in Gyeonggi Province in a last-ditch effort to retake his lead in the capital region that is home to about half the nation's voters.
Recent public opinion surveys have shown the two candidates running neck-and-neck in Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi region, leading both sides to step up their campaigns before the Thursday deadline for publishing opinion polls.
South Korean law bans survey results from being released in the last six days of the election period, as they could disproportionately sway voter sentiment.
In recent weeks, both parties have moved to consolidate their support bases in Chungcheong, with the Saenuri Party forming a merger with the conservative Advancement and Unification Party, which had a strong following in the region, and the DUP announcing former Prime Minister Chung Un-chan's support for Moon.
Chung was born in Gongju and served in the incumbent Lee Myung-bak administration.
Former liberal independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo continued his own campaign trail in support of Moon by meeting with voters in the northern Gangwon Province.
Ahn's support is seen as crucial in raising voter turnout in favor of the opposition, as the former software mogul has a strong following among younger generations.
Several aides who met with Ahn over dinner Tuesday said the 50-year-old liberal plans to leave the country for several months after the election to contemplate his next move in politics.
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