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SEOUL, Jan. 12 (Yonhap) -- Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's return home on Thursday has sent South Korea's conservative parties scurrying to court the powerful potential presidential candidate.
Pundits bet Ban will choose to ally with an existing political party rather than creating his own to prepare for an early presidential election.
Hit by a recent scandal involving President Park Geun-hye, the ruling Saenuri Party and a soon-to-be-launched splinter party are struggling to find a potent figure to lead them through the election. They are currently pinning hopes on Ban, seen as a conservative, who is closely competing with Moon Jae-in of the opposition Democratic Party for the frontrunner position in opinion polls.
Ban, a former foreign minister, completed his second five-year term as the U.N. helmsman at the end of last year and is scheduled to land in Seoul on Thursday afternoon.
The conservative parties are currently refraining from making explicit love calls, with their welcome messages underscoring the need for stringent vetting for his qualifications.
"Ban should remember he is Koreans' pride and a national asset. In this grave situation of the country, we hope Ban will show leadership with a distinctive prestige and dignity," Rep. Chung Woo-taik, the floor leader of Saenuri, said.
A conservative splinter party, named Barun (righteous) Party, claimed Ban should come up with a clear vision for the country. The party founded by former Saenuri lawmakers will set sail later this month. It still does not have an official English name.
The group also called on Ban to clarify recent rumors, referring to an ongoing bribe investigation in New York involving his brother and nephew, and a recent local news report that he received US$230,000 in cash in 2005 and 2007 from a businessman convicted of corruption.
Ban expressed regret over the case of his relatives before he left for Seoul earlier in the day. Regarding the news report, he denied the allegation and filed a complaint with a press-arbitration body against the magazine's publisher.
Rep. Yoo Seong-min of Barun, who is also cited as a potential candidate, said Ban should clearly show whether he is a conservative or liberal.
"I do not know about his identity well," Yoo said during an interview with YTN on Thursday.
Nevertheless, the conservative parties are engaging in a behind-the-scenes competition to attract Ban, according to party insiders.
"As there is not much time, (Ban) would not be able to make a new party. We expect Ban to join the Barun Party, which will also induce Chungcheong-based Saenuri lawmakers to join us," a Barun lawmaker said. North Chungcheong Province is Ban's hometown.
Before the Park scandal broke in late October, Ban had been widely expected to join the Saenuri Party. But he has since distanced himself from it as the president was impeached and the governing party was split.
Saenuri officials, however, still hold out on hopes Ban will choose the traditional conservative party as his platform for presidency, considering its strong support base and organizational power.
"Ban is likely to be taking a wait-and-see approach for a while, but he will have no choice but to join Saenuri, which has know-how of presidential elections and experience in several major elections," a Saenuri lawmaker said.
Political pundits said Saenuri's latest move to expel key loyalists to Park is also in line with its bid to pave the way for Ban join the party.
"In the face of public criticism, the party should urgently realign itself," another official said.
The main opposition Democratic Party continued to bash Ban, who is the only viable rival to Moon in the presidential race for the time being.
"While Ban says he is excited about returning home, people are concerned about corruption allegations surrounding Ban and his family. Ban needs to prove whether he is qualified to talk about the future of South Korea," said Rep. Koh Yong-jin, a spokesman of the Democratic Party.
Rep. Woo Sang-ho, the party's floor leader, also said, "I believe it is more desirable for him to remain as a global leader and live a life with respect."
Rep. Park Jie-won, former floor leader and a chairman hopeful of the splinter People's Party, also demanded Ban clearly present his political philosophy and direction, and clear himself of the corruption allegations. Ban must face a prosecution investigation if necessary, he added.
Regarding potential alliance with Ban, the minor opposition party is divided along its factional line.
Its former leader Ahn Cheol-soo, a potential competitor of Ban over the party's presidential ticket, has been negative about inviting him, while his rival faction, led by those from the southwest region of Jeolla, is more open to attracting Ban to counter Ahn's influence.
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