In the South Korean presidential election precipitated by the corruption scandal surrounding and subsequent impeachment of Park Guen-hye, her defeated rival of four years prior, Moon Jae-in, has swept to power.
Mr Moon, the liberal candidate of the previous main opposition Democratic Party, may not have achieved a majority of the votes cast, but only requiring a plurality to win, the 41.1% of the vote accumulated in his column outstripped his opponents by some distance. His nearest rival, Hong Joon-pyo of the conservative, previously governing Liberty Korea Party, only registered about a quarter of the vote.
The circumstances of the premature presidential vote dominated the electoral campaign, which undoubtedly worked in Moon’s favour. Mr Moon’s background as an active and jailed student protester against Ms Park’s father, Park Chung-hee’s authoritarian rule, and subsequent career as a human rights lawyer infuse the hope of many that his campaign promises of reforming cheibols will come to fruition.These family-run conglomerates dominate the Korean economy and are seen by many as part of the reason for South Korea’s recurring political corruption problems. Meanwhile, his active role in promoting the extraordinary mass candle-lit vigil protests against Ms Park last autumn provide the likeliest explanation for his galvanism of the youth vote, according to commentators.
Seeking to underline the break with the past of Ms Park’s corruption, Mr Moon has announced his intention to live in a building in the middle of Seoul, as open as possible, as opposed to living in the official presidential residence of the Blue House, that became increasingly seen in Ms Park’s final days in office as an ‘imperial palace’.
Mr Moon’s election signals significant change for South Korea with regards to two policy areas in particular, national security and education.
On the latter he has promised fundamental reform, including the joining up of state-run universities and legislation banning discrimination based upon academic background. These are designed to tackle the current trend for alma maters taking major precedence in employer recruitment decisions and, in turn, to reduce the stress of the CSAT tests that determine university placing and future career prospects in an even more intense way than our equivalent of A-Levels.
Perhaps due to his family’s North Korean refugee background, or his long, close association with President Roh Moo-hyun, who advocated the so-called ‘Sunshine Policy’ of conciliation and negotiation with North Korea to gain concessions over ballistic missiles, Moon has indicated willingness to talk to North Korea.
A key sign of his support for dialogue, rather than continuing Ms Park’s stance of trying to ring-fence North Korean economic isolationism, is his swift appointment of Suh Hoon as director of the National Intelligence Service. Suh was previously involved in the all-Korean talks of 2002 and 2007 and has described another such event as ‘necessary’, although only possible after current high tensions caused by recent missile tests and shows of military strength by North Korea are eased.
In another strand of security policy regarding North Korea, Moon has committed to a review of the recently operational ‘Thaad’, an anti-missile system provided by the USA. China’s criticism of Thaad and a subsequent Chinese consumer boycott of Korean goods may be a principal reason behind this commitment, or alternatively the concern caused by Trump’s recent comments of wanting Seoul to pay $1bn to the USA for Thaad.
Moon’s apparent favouring of a revival of some sort of the ‘Sunshine Policy’ would appear to set him at odds with President Donald Trump. He has presided over a White House administration which has expressed willingness to take military action over North Korea’s ballistic missile tests and put pressure on China to sever economic ties or use them as leverage with North Korea. Then again, Trump has previously said of his willingness to talk to Kim Yong-un over a hamburger. Only time will tell if the 64-year old Korean and the 70-year old American will get along or not.