South Korea’s New President Faces Old Challenges

On May 10 South Korea elected its newest president, Moon Jae-in. Moon was elected after the presiding president, Park Geun-hye, was ousted in the wake of numerous scandals and corruption allegations. Moon won the election with over 41 percent in a three-way race, beating two more conservative presidential rivals. His victory leads to the first time a liberal has held the South Korean presidential office in over a decade. Moon’s presidency will surely be a dramatic change for a country that has been slowly shifting toward more a liberal ideology in recent years.  

Moon is considered a progressive liberal, with an established history as a human rights attorney. In his youth he was arrested and convicted after protesting against then-President Park Chung-hee. Moon was initially expelled from university but returned to complete his degree in law. He entered into politics in 2003, as the campaign manager for his good friend and future president, Roh Moo-hyun. After Roh’s corruption charges and subsequent suicide, Moon stepped up to the public spotlight and ran in the 2012 presidential election, but was defeated by Park Geun-hye.

The daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee, Park Geun-hye now sits in jail awaiting trial on numerous corruption charges. Alleged collusion with South Korea’s powerful corporate-families (or chaebol) and a string of scandals turned the populace against her and she was ousted in March following months of protests.

President Moon has already begun distancing himself from his politically toxic predecessor. He has vowed to move out of the “Blue House,” South Korea’s mountaintop presidential mansion, where every president has lived and worked since its completion in 1991. Calling himself a man of the people, Moon will commute from his current home to downtown Gwanghwamun and work alongside the same residents that protested week after week to remove Park Geun-hye. Moon has presented plans to combat a rising unemployment rate and raise taxes on the rich, as well as implementing more stringent controls over the chaebol that function in Korea.

While Moon has promised a number of liberal changes to South Korean domestic policy, North Korea remains an utmost priority for all the major players in the region. Moon, who campaigned on using a softer touch with the temperamental Northern neighbor, has agreed to a meeting with the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, under the right circumstances. Moon has signaled that he would consider an easing of sanctions on the country in hopes of de-escalating growing nuclear concerns.

President Moon may find it difficult to appease South Korea’s number one ally while simultaneously attempting a new strategy with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The United States has promised to ramp up sanctions and continue isolating North Korea in the face of recent missile tests and nuclear advancement. While on the campaign trail Moon promised to re-evaluate the acceptance of America’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system into South Korea, but in recent days he has begun to walk back those remarks, saying, “North Korea must cease making provocations before tension over the deployment could be resolved.” While the United States is pressuring Korean authorities for the defense system to remain in place, China’s leadership has condemned the installation, citing security risks of their own. President Moon Jae-in may have won the hearts and minds of voters with an ideological shift and promises of change, but the coming months will determine if Moon will be able to successfully maneuver a tense situation playing out between the world’s largest superpowers.