Liberal Wins South Korean Presidency As Opponents Concede | Connecticut Public Radio

Liberal Wins South Korean Presidency As Opponents Concede

May 9, 2017
Originally published on May 9, 2017 11:33 pm

A liberal human rights lawyer born to North Korean refugees has won South Korea's presidential election with a promise to improve the economy and hold talks with the nuclear-armed North.

Moon Jae-in, 64, of the Democratic Party, is a former student protester, special forces soldier and presidential aide. He has promised to add public sector jobs, engage Pyongyang in dialogue and rethink South Korea's close relations with the United States.

Moon had a strong lead of more than 41 percent of the vote among a field of 13 candidates, according to unofficial exit polls conducted by South Korean media.

His closest contenders — a far-right conservative and a centrist — have conceded defeat.

Election officials confirmed Moon's victory early Wednesday morning local time (Tuesday afternoon ET).

Moon is most closely associated with the left-wing politics of another South Korean president, Roh Moo-hyun, who served from 2003 to 2008 and committed suicide in 2009 amid a family corruption scandal. Moon was Roh's chief of staff, law partner and best friend and is expected to revive his so-called Sunshine Policy of dialogue and economic aid to North Korea.

But while North Korea's burgeoning nuclear program grabs headlines abroad, many South Koreans said the election issues most important to them are domestic: sluggish economic growth, soaring youth unemployment, corruption and air pollution.

Moon's victory was in a special by-election to replace former President Park Geun-hye, who was impeached late last year and removed from office in March. Last week, she went on trial in Seoul for corruption; if convicted, she could spend life in prison. The head of the country's largest conglomerate, Samsung, has also been indicted.

"I want the next president to make sure Park faces punishment," said accountant Kim Il-young, 26, outside a polling station Tuesday in Seoul. "Politicians, even if they're convicted, sometimes get pardoned easily and are punished much less severely than average citizens."

Once official results confirm his win, Moon is expected to make a victory speech in a central district of Seoul that has been the makeshift base for protesters calling for Park's ouster. Throughout his campaign, Moon has spoken figuratively of moving the base of power out of South Korea's version of the White House and into those squares where protesters gathered.

While campaigning, several presidential candidates said they would consider pardoning Park, but Moon has said he refuses to do so. He lost the 2012 presidential election to Park but got support in this election from her critics, many of them younger voters.

Under Moon, South Korea is expected to reach out to North Korea, but analysts warn not to expect immediate talks.

"He will push for an inter-Korean summit meeting, but this will only come after a meeting with President Trump," says political scientist Kim Hong-guk, a professor at South Korea's Kyonggi University. "At this point, communication between the two Koreas is completely cut off, which is why he would focus on improving the situation and gathering momentum, such as discussing ways to reopen the Kaesong industrial complex."

That's a joint industrial facility where tens of thousands of North and South Koreans work together just north of the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two countries. It has been closed for more than a year. Moon has proposed reopening it.

North Korea, for its part, called on the eve of the South Korean election for an "end to conflict" between the two Koreas and the start of "a new era of reunification."

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After one president was impeached and removed from office, South Koreans today elected a new president. He's a liberal human rights lawyer whose parents were North Korean refugees. NPR's Lauren Frayer is following the story, and she's with us now from the capital, Seoul. Hi there, Lauren.


MCEVERS: What's it been like on voting day?

FRAYER: Voting day was a day off of work for most South Koreans, but it rained most of the day. That didn't stop turnout, which topped 77 percent, the highest in 20 years. There were no major delays or long lines. Everything happened pretty orderly. A lot of people, in fact, voted early last week. And before midnight, as Moon Jae-in's closest rivals conceded, people started flooding into this area of Seoul where protesters had camped out for months calling for the former president, Park Geun-hye's, ouster.

And those protests were fruitful. She was impeached and is now on trial for corruption. The man who will replace her, Moon Jae-in, elected today, got a lot of support from those protesters. He was once an activist like them back in the 1970s. So after midnight local time, Moon waded into that crowd of supporters, and here's a little bit of what it sounded like.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting) Moon Jae-in.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting) Moon Jae-in.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Korean).


FRAYER: So there you can hear a party official on stage shouting Moon Jae-in, the name of the new president, and the crowd replies president in Korean.

MCEVERS: Tell us more about Moon Jae-in. Who is he?

FRAYER: He's a liberal. He's from South Korea's Democratic Party. He's a human rights lawyer, and he's most closely associated with a former left-wing president, Roh Moo-hyun. He had this sunshine policy of dialogue and economic aid to North Korea. And Moon is expected to revive that. Incidentally, as a personal connection to North Korea, as you mentioned, his parents were refugees from there. They were rescued by a U.S. warship in 1950 at the start of the Korean War.

But it's not all about North Korea here. Domestic issues were very important in this election. Moon also promised to add more public sector jobs and fight corruption that led to his predecessor's removal from office. Here's one voter, 34-year-old Seo Seung-gun, talking about how he hopes Moon represents a fresh start.

SEO SEUNG-GUN: I'm hoping that it sets the foundation from the very beginning. It's the government that is consistent with their words and their action.

FRAYER: So he says voters had really lost faith in government under the previous president, who went on trial last week for bribery and abuse of power.

MCEVERS: So tomorrow morning, Moon gets going. What's his first item on the list?

FRAYER: So normally, presidents get 60 days to prepare. Moon will be lucky if he gets a couple hours of sleep tonight. He takes office right away. First, an item on his agenda, there are calls to pardon ex-president Park. Moon has said he will not do that. He's also said he will reach out to the North, also to South Korea's historic ally, America. Interestingly, Moon wrote in his autobiography that he thinks South Korea should, quote, "learn how to say no to America." And so if he meets soon with President Trump, that could be a touchy meeting. They're also likely to talk about THAAD. That's a new U.S. missile defense system that's being installed in South Korea. Half of South Koreans - about half of South Koreans object to it; so does China. And Moon has said he would like to renegotiate that deal with the U.S.

MCEVERS: NPR's Lauren Frayer in Seoul, thank you very much.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.