Liberal presidential candidate Moon Jae-in claimed victory in South Korea’s election Tuesday, signaling a potential stark shift in policy toward Pyongyang that could complicate Washington’s attempts to bring the North into line.
Addressing crowds gathered in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square Tuesday, Moon, the 64-year-old candidate for the Democratic Party, promised to be a “president for the people.”
Final results are yet to be released, but an early estimate with about a third of the vote counted placed Moon comfortably in front with about 40 percent of the vote, ahead of conservative Hong Jun-pyo, of the Liberty Korea Party, and centrist software entrepreneur Ahn Cheol-soo, of the People’s Party. An exit poll by South Korea’s three main TV stations forecast a similar outcome.
The election was held amid unprecedented circumstances, after former President Park was thrown out of office in March following mass protests over her role in a corruption scandal. Park is currently in jail awaiting trial for charges of bribery and abuse of power. Besides domestic unrest, regional tensions have been soaring amid escalating rhetoric between Pyongyang and Washington, Seoul’s key military ally, over the hermit kingdom’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Unlike his predecessors in the presidential Blue House, and his two main rivals in the race, Moon favors engagement with North Korea rather than the saber-rattling that has been escalating under the Trump administration. He has said the hard-line approach of the previous two administrations in Seoul has done nothing to halt the North’s nuclear progress, arguing that talks and economic exchanges are likely to prove a more effective tactic in persuading North Korea to abandon its weapons programs.
John Nilsson-Wright, senior lecturer in international relations at Cambridge University, told VICE News that Moon’s more moderate approach could lead to increased tensions between Seoul and Washington, as the U.S. – accustomed to a compliant partner in South Korea – looks to put pressure on the North over its weapons programs.
“Moon represents a tradition in South Korean politics that believes that ‘jaw-jaw is better than war-war’,” he said. “He’s almost certainly going to look to find opportunities for dialog with the North. I would expect pushback against a Washington approach that emphasizes pressure exclusively at the expense of negotiations.”
But, he pointed out, amid the bellicose rhetoric from Washington, Trump has also made surprising statements suggesting he’s not completely against dialogue with North Korea. Trump said last week he would be “honored” to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but only under the “right circumstances,” a stance Moon acknowledged in a recent Washington Post interview when he described Trump as being “more reasonable than he is generally perceived.”
One issue they do differ on is the controversial Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system, deployed by the U.S. on South Korean soil and switched on last week. Moon has been critical of the deployment, which has angered both Beijing and Pyongyang, saying he would review the project if elected. Nilsson-Wright said a Moon administration would likely be sensitive to the importance of being seen to be consulted over such matters.
Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert at Seoul’s Troy University, said Moon’s policy toward the North reflected “a strong public desire for a reduction in tensions and animosity between the two Koreas.” But any moves toward reconciliation with the North would require reciprocity from Pyongyang to continue – something unlikely in the current climate.
“Unless North Korea is willing to cooperate then no initiative by any South Korean president is going to matter,” he told VICE News. “I think the next president will be constrained, considering North Korean behaviour recently.”
North Korea appeared to signal its preferences in the race when it published a commentary in the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper Monday, blaming the conservative South Korean government of the past 10 years for reviving the confrontation between the two Koreas. “If the conservative clique is to come into power again, the tragedy will be extended,” it read.
Moon, a former human rights lawyer and special forces soldier, served as chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun prior to entering politics. He narrowly lost the last presidential elections to Park in 2012.
Nilsson-Wright said Moon appealed to a scandal-weary electorate as a clean politician who could reunite the country following the drawn-out Park scandal, which has seen the former president accused of taking or demanding $52 million in bribes from big businesses. He has vowed to clean up politics, reform the powerful family-run conglomerates, or chaebol, that dominate the economy, and increase spending to create jobs.
“There’s an appetite for a progressive candidate who is seen as being able to take on the power of the vested financial interests and challenge the political culture,” said Nilsson-Wright.
“The distaste with the commercial elites is deep-seated, and there’s a powerful sense of unfairness in South Korean society.”
Because the vote is a by-election to replace the jailed former president Park, the new president will be sworn in as soon as the vote count is completed and a winner formally announced.
This article was updated at 12:30 ET to reflect the final result of the election.
Cover: Associated Press