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(LEAD) Former U.N. chief Ban continues drive to gauge public sentiment

All News 18:11 January 16, 2017

(ATTN: EXPANDS dateline; ADDS photo; UPDATES with new info in paras 9-15)

GEOJE/BUSAN, Jan. 16 (Yonhap) -- Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday continued his politically tinged tour across the country in an apparent move to gauge public sentiment and drum up grassroots support ahead of a presidential election this year.

His schedule this week included visits to South Korea's southern island of Geoje and its largest port city of Busan, which happens to be the birthplace and political hometown of his arch rival Moon Jae-in, a former leader of the main opposition Democratic Party.

Upon his return to Korea last Thursday following his 10 years as the U.N. chief, Ban launched an aggressive campaign to connect with citizens apparently to boost his presidential prospects and dispel concerns that he had been out of touch for too long.

The political neophyte has yet to officially declare his presidential bid. But he has repeatedly signaled strong presidential ambitions, vowing to work for "a change in politics" -- a message seen as a stinging challenge to establishment politicians.

During his trip to Geoje, Ban met with workers at a shipyard of Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering that has been going through a creditors-led intensive restructuring program, and highlighted the possibility of boosting ship exports through diplomacy.

"(The country) can promote exports through summit diplomacy and other diplomatic channels," he told the workers, boasting of the extensive personal network of world leaders that he has built while taking the helm the U.N.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during a meeting with workers at a shipyard of Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering on South Korea's southern island of Geoje on Jan. 16, 2017. (Yonhap)

"I will be able do that if I happen to be given the opportunity."

Ban also pointed out a series of the current government's policy mishaps, small or big, saying they must be redressed as the nation seeks to revamp the ailing shipbuilding and shipping industries.

Later in the day, Ban visited the U.N. Memorial Cemetery in Busan and held a town hall meeting with university students.

During a meeting with reporters at the cemetery, Ban commented on a 2015 deal between Seoul and Tokyo over Japan's wartime sexual slavery.

He said if the deal entails an agreement to remove a statue symbolizing Korean victims, it would be "wrong."

"My principle (about the deal) is that it must be about addressing the victims' resentment," he said.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks to the press during his visit to the U.N. Memorial Cemetery in the country's southern port city of Busan on Jan. 16, 2017. (Yonhap)

Japan has demanded the removal of the monument in front of its embassy in central Seoul, saying it was part of the deal. Seoul has maintained it has no authority to move the statue set up by civilians.

On the issue of regaining wartime operational control (OPCON) from Washington, Ban said when the security situation improves on the peninsula, Seoul should take steps towards regaining control.

The OPCON transfer, which was previously set for 2015, was deferred amid Pyongyang's provocations. Seoul and Washington have agreed on the "conditions-based" transfer, which observers say could come sometime in the 2020s.

Some observers said that Ban's visits to Geoje and Busan appear to have political undertones at a time when Ban is trailing Moon in various recent opinion polls.

However, Ban's aides cautioned against attaching any serious political meaning to his trip there, saying it was just "part of his onsite tour to check the reality of the economy and meet citizens."

This week, Ban also plans to visit Paengmok Port in Jindo, South Jeolla Province, the site near the 2014 ferry disaster; a recently burned traditional market in Daegu, the stronghold for conservatives; and other regions with different political views to highlight his desire for national unity.


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