On Vesak Day on May 9, 2017, as South Korea’s President-Elect Moon Jae-in attended ceremonies related to the Buddha’s birthday along with the rest of Asia, it emerged that South Koreans voters had overwhelmingly selected the liberal (perceived by some as even left-leaning) candidate Moon as their next leader. What are the implications for the Korean Peninsula crisis and the region? It is still early to tell, so clues have to be gathered from the past, particularly from the election campaign and biographical histories.
Moon, aged 64, is an accomplished man. He was a special forces personnel, an elite military man. He was not born into a political dynasty, whereas former President Park Geun-hye was the daughter of former strongman leader Park Chung-hee in the early pre-democratization post-war period. The son of a manual worker who escaped from North Korea with his wife during the Korean War (1950-53), Moon had proletarian roots in the Southern island of Geoje. He became a student activist who opposed the Park Chung Hee regime. His proletariat roots and student activism earned him stripes with the liberals and the left.
He became a lawyer and focused on constitutional law, rising high in the legal world to eventually become part of former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun’s administration. Roh is widely believed to have committed suicide after he was embroiled in a scandal. After Roh, there followed years of conservative administrations under former Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park. Given such strong credentials in terms of military training, professional knowledge, social activism, roots as a self-made man, and experiences in the Roh administration, it may be understandable why Moon was a credible candidate right from the start. He lost in the previous election to former President Park only by a narrow margin.
His election comes at a sensitive time as the dark clouds of war seems to be gathering around the Korean Peninsula. While this appeared to be a lesser concern for Korean voters than domestic issues, it is of great concern to the region, especially South Korea’s neighbors and allies — Washington, Beijing, Tokyo and presumably Pyongyang as well. Recent developments included the arrival of the USS Carl Vinson strike force in waters off the Korean Peninsula, the deployment of Tomahawk-missile carrying destroyers and a Japanese helicopter carrier, French ships calling to port at Japan due to the crisis, and the rumored deployment of 150,000 Chinese troops to the border with North Korea and the deployment of H-6 long range strategic bombers (both of which were denied by China).
Of greater concern to voters were their perceptions of the need to regulate South Korea’s private sector conglomerates and also their perceptions of political governance. The previous President Park, a favorite amongst conservatives and the right, was brought down in a scandal involving a close associate’s activities with the local multinational companies. Former President Park was perceived to be under the undue influence of her close friend and associate. This brought an end to the country’s first female president, an achievement by itself in the Northeast Asian Confucian context and marks the beginning of a new liberal era.
Due credit must be given to former President Park. During Park’s presidency, she oversaw an upgrade in relations with Beijing (including her attendance at the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII in Beijing, and South Korea’s joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), the strengthening of relations with Washington (and lobbying for entry into the Trans Pacific Partnership), and her caretaker successor put in place the defensive Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system that can knock out North Korean missiles if a conflict breaks out. All these measures contributed to the rise of South Korea as a middle power in the region.
Moon is seen to be the countervailing force to the political influence and support that Park symbolized and represented. Park was a conservative, Moon is a liberal. Park was tough on Pyongyang; Moon’s election campaign is keen to have more contact with Pyongyang to resolve the current crisis. We do not know as yet whether Moon will go as far as to revive the “Sunshine Policy” to have better relations with North Korea. This will be dependent on the major powers’ reactions and responses to the North Korean nuclear and missile programs as well as domestic considerations in South Korea like national security. While Park reconciled with Japan over sensitive wartime memory (comfort women), Moon seems to be more cautious about such matters (at least during the campaign stage).
It is natural in liberal democracies to rotate between conservative and liberal regimes, especially if one side had been in power for a long time (in the case of South Korea, they already experienced two conservative administrations). Perhaps the time has come for a change, and the electorate has spoken. But differences must not overshadow similarities, regardless of which end of the political spectrum comes into power. Both Park and Moon are united in strengthening the alliance with the US. Both Park and Moon are keen to interact with Washington and Beijing to mitigate, resolve, and turn down temperatures on the Korean Peninsula. Both Park and Moon are keen to upgrade economic relations with China.
There was also a socioeconomic tone to the election as the voters perceived some issues and troubles with corporate governance in South Korea’s big business sector. It does not detract from the fact that South Korea has been extremely successful with economic development and was one of the economic miracles of the booming “Four Tiger Economies.” Perception-wise, the public wants the private sector to do even better with improved corporate governance, transparency, and equitable meritocratic distribution of opportunities and benefits. In this context, some members of the public are keen to deconstruct elitism in the economic sector and government. South Korea is currently dominated by powerful family-owned conglomerates which were the backbone of Korean economic development in the past, and which made it a manufacturing powerhouse of the world.
Moon wants to discourage family succession in running large business empires and to dish out less presidential pardons for the scions and top executives of such companies.
Against this backdrop, Moon is keen to strengthen the regulatory role and framework in South Korea to bring about better corporate governance. He wants to discourage family succession in running large business empires in South Korea and wants to dish out less presidential pardons for the scions and top executives of such companies. Moon also wants to tackle youth unemployment. He plans to relocate the Presidential Office to a location closer to the people, which will make him more symbolically accessible.
Moon’s first presidential test will be appointing a Prime Minister to take care of daily operational matters. This is an appointment that has to pass through parliament and is dependent on his political skills. Other ministerial appointments are comparatively easier without the need for parliamentary approval. Under the new leadership, the strong passion of South Koreans for their country is quite likely to see the country through the crisis, with help from its ally the US as well as well-wishers in other neighboring states.