By James Pearson and Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) - With former U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon bowing out of South Korea's presidential race on Tuesday, Moon Jae-in, a human rights lawyer who has promised to shake up the system, is now the odds-on favorite to win.
Moon lost the 2012 election to embattled president Park Geun-hye by more than a million votes, but is seeking to lead the liberal Democratic Party into the next election and end eight years of conservative rule.
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Like many on the South Korean left, Moon calls for sweeping reform of the chaebol - the big conglomerates that dominate the economy and have been at the heart of the political crisis - and claims he is the standard bearer for change.
"The question is clear: do we accomplish regime change or not," Moon told reporters after Ban said he was ruling out a run for president.
"This is a race between the candidate who will bring regime change and the candidate who will extend the regime. In that race, I can tell you clearly the choice of the people will be for regime change," he declared.
Moon, who has described Ban representing the status quo, has led in opinion polls in recent weeks, overtaking Ban, with the country in turmoil over a corruption scandal that led to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye.
Before the scandal erupted in October, Ban was widely expected to join Park's Saenuri Party.
Moon's public support stems from his time as chief of staff to South Korea's last liberal president, Roh Moo-hyun, a figure revered by the left for his experimental and anti-establishment politics that tried to bring about reform to the chaebol, family-run conglomerates such as Samsung, Hyundai and LG that dominate the economy.
"Moon is a symbol of that experiment," Yang Jung-chul, a close aide to Moon, told Reuters in December.
Moon's parents fled North Korea during the Korean War and resettled in Busan, at the south end of the peninsula, where Moon grew up in a shanty town.
He was jailed in 1975 for protesting against the dictatorship of Park Chung Hee, President Park's father, whose rule lasted 18 years. After leaving mandatory military service, where he served in the special forces, Moon became a lawyer.
His stance on North Korea has not been popular with a conservative electorate who view him as being too soft on Pyongyang, which has defied international sanctions over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
VISIT NORTH KOREA
Moon has said that, if elected, he would visit North Korea before making a trip to South Korea's main ally, the United States. The two Koreas have been technically at war with virtually no communications between them since the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in an armed truce instead of a peace agreement.
Moon came under fire earlier last year for revelations in a former foreign minister's memoir that he had backed a motion to abstain from a United Nations vote against North Korea's human rights record.
Moon said he wants Ban to use his experience on national security to play a major role for the country but stopped short of saying he would formally join forces with him.
"Yes, I want to receive a lot of advice and support from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, especially on diplomatic issues," he said on Wednesday, when asked if there might be a place for Ban in a Moon Jae-in government.
(Editing by Jack Kim and Bill Tarrant)