The Minjoo Party’s Moon Jae-in claimed victory in today’s Presidential elections in a speech in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square at 23:49 local time, returning the country’s liberals to the Blue House after nine years of conservative rule.
While results are still coming in, an exit poll released at 8pm local time suggested Moon had won 41.1% of the vote, with his main rivals Hong Jun-pyo and Ahn Cheol-soo on 23.3% and 21.8% respectively.
Moon pledged to “become the president of all the people”, speaking before crowds of supporters in central Seoul.
Voter turnout was 77.2%, according to South Korea’s National Election Commission (NEC), in a victory for the center-left that may see Seoul pursue far great economic ties with the North.
As a result of the March 10 impeachment of Park Geun-hye, Moon will take office on Wednesday, instead of the usual two month transition period observed in South Korea.
Moon, who ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2012 against Park Geun-hye, previously served as Chief Secretary to the late liberal president Roh Moo-hyun and has been seen as a leading contender since last year.
Moon saw off stiff competition, however, with both the centrist Ahn Cheol-soo and the hard-right Hong Jun-pyo having, at times, been seen as potential challengers to what had once seemed like a one-horse race.
Now in office, Moon faces a complex balancing act.
On the campaign trail he has been a vociferous defender of the “Sunshine” policies of former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh, pledging to re-open and expand the Kaesong Industrial Complex and saying he would visit Pyongyang before he visited the U.S. If a visit does take place, it will be the first by a South Korean president since the inter-Korean summit of 2007.
The now-President-elect released a detailed outline of his inter-Korean policies on April 24, in which he said he would sign a peace treaty with North Korea and push for “economic unification” of the peninsula.
But President Moon faces a number of challenges on day one of his Presidency – not least the fact that his party, Minjoo, does not control a majority of seats in South Korea’s National Assembly.
In addition, China, strongly opposed to the deployment in South Korea of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system (which Moon has been accused of reversing his position on), has launched so-called “unofficial” sanctions against South Korean companies in response to the deployment.
And while his liberal predecessors experienced a sometimes-difficult relationship with U.S. President George W. Bush, Moon will have to deal with the highly unpredictable Donald Trump.
Trump’s administration has, in recent months, swerved from threatening North Korea with military action if its missile and nuclear tests continue, to the President describing Kim Jong Un as a “smart cookie” and saying he would be “honored” to meet the North Korean leader.
Amid heightened tensions on the peninsula, Trump has also recently said that a “major conflict” between the United States and North Korea is “absolutely” possible.
And despite Moon’s insistence that any potential deal with North Korea would have to involve South Korea, China and the U.S. seem increasingly unified in their approach to North Korea.
President Trump has also expressed sentiments that do not bode well for Seoul-U.S. relations in the near future. On the campaign trail, he frequently accused U.S. allies of not paying their fair share of defense costs, and even suggested two weeks ago that South Korea might be forced to shoulder the $1 billion cost of the THAAD deployment.
Meanwhile, North Korea’s missile and nuclear program continues, unabated by international sanctions and condemnation. On April 28 the DPRK marked Trump’s 100th day in office with another missile test, which failed: its sixth this year.
Kim Jong Un also pledged in his New Year’s address that the country would test an ICBM this year, a move that would likely lead to a military response from the U.S. – something that now-President-elect Moon said on the campaign trail could not happen without Seoul’s approval.
Tristan Webb, an analyst at NK Pro, said the South Korean campaign’s focus on domestic issues may see North Korea take a backseat, however, particularly if Pyongyang continues military provocations.
“If Pyongyang messes around with his overtures for engagement and does not cooperate, [Moon] may decide to just focus on his domestic agenda instead,” he said. “Although THAAD is now open for renegotiation, President Moon is extremely unlikely to rattle the fundamentals of the relationship with the U.S.”
“Any undermining of the alliance will come from Trump’s surprise remarks on renegotiating both the burden-sharing agreement and the KORUS FTA, and any further derogatory comments about his alliance partner’s history.”
Featured image: Yonhap News, screengrab
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