Ignoring North Korea’s threats, South Korea just elected a pacifist

Starchy but sweet: Moon Jae-in at a campaign rally.
Starchy but sweet: Moon Jae-in at a campaign rally.
Image: Hwang Kwang-mo/Yonhap via Reuters
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South Korea’s citizens have chosen a 64-year-old former human rights lawyer, Moon Jae-in, as their new president, exit polls showed Tuesday night. Moon will take over from an interim government that replaced the disgraced ex-president Park Geun-hye, who was impeached in March. More than 41 percent of South Koreans voted for Moon over his main rivals, conservative candidate Hong Jun-pyo of the Liberty Korea Party, sometimes called “Hong Trump,” and centrist candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, a software entrepreneur who joined politics.

Official results will be out early Wednesday (May 10) Korea time.

Both rivals conceded Tuesday night after exit polls showed Moon ahead. Moon told supporters he would work for reform and national unity, and spoke of the “sheer desperation” of the Korean people.

Moon was the clear front-runner in the two-month presidential race, which came after Park was impeached over leaking government secrets to a confidant. During the campaign, some critics nicknamed him a “sweet potato”—a popular but starch Korean snack, alluding to his slow, somewhat heavy-going manner. The question at the forefront for people watching from outside Korea now is: How will he deal with an increasingly belligerent North Korea? In recent months, North Korea has held a military parade and shown off new missiles, as well as released a video simulating an attack on the US White House.

Park was known for taking an aggressive stance to North Korea, including overtures to the North’s allies (paywall) in order to wean them away and further isolate the country. A son of refugees from the North, Moon is expected to take a more conciliatory stance on the Hermit Kingdom, which might ease fears the peninsula is heading towards war as North Korea’s threats meet with tougher US language. A memoir published by a former South Korean foreign minister months earlier suggested that Moon might be too friendly to North Korea. Moon’s signals that he would push for measured engagement with the North were in contrast to his rivals.

But if North Korea is at the top of people’s minds outside South Korea, some analysts have said other concerns are more dominant within the country.

Moon will preside over a country that faces Asia-Pacific’s worst income inequality, rising youth unemployment, anemic growth, and widespread corruption in Korea’s powerful family-owned conglomerates. One of the reasons anger over Park and her confidant was so deep was the perception among Koreans that the relationship had helped the friend’s daughter get ahead in highly-competitive Korea.

The election result also casts a shadow over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), an antimissile defence system that the US has deployed in his country to deter North Korean missiles, and that is deemed a threat by China. Moon has said its deployment should be examined by the new administration.

Moon was born on South Korea’s Geoje island in 1952 during the Korean War after his parents fled the North. He spent years fighting for democracy in the 1980s. Moon served as chief of staff to left-leaning president Roh Moo-hyun, who was also impeached by lawmakers, though that was not upheld by the constitutional court. Roh later killed himself by jumping off a cliff in 2009 amid a corruption scandal.

Being progressive politically doesn’t necessarily translate to being progressive socially. During the presidential campagin, Moon said that he was against homosexuality, a stance that appears to have been just fine with Korea’s conservative population.