S. Korea Main Opposition Nominates Moon Jae In for President

South Korean lawmaker and human rights activist Moon Jae In won the nomination today as the main opposition party’s candidate trying to win back the nation’s presidency in the December election.

Moon, 59, won the district of Seoul, the final of 13 local races held over the past three weeks as part of the Democratic United Party’s nomination contest. He garnered 56.52 percent of the ballots cast since the open primary began in Aug. 25 and won the previous 12 ballots.

“The driving force behind my victory today is the people’s thirst for change,” he said today in his acceptance speech at a stadium in a Seoul suburb. “I promise you victory and a regime change this December!”

The former chief of staff to late President Roh Moo Hyun and first-term lawmaker trails in opinion polls for the Dec. 17 presidential race behind ruling New Frontier Party nominee Park Geun Hye and independent software executive Ahn Cheol Soo, who has yet to announce his candidacy. Moon and his party have struggled to draw public attention away from Park, who boasts an unmatched political career and legacy as the daughter of South Korea’s longest serving dictator, President Park Chung Hee.

“Moon hasn’t been able to formulate his own brand that’s strong enough stand against those of other juggernauts like President Roh and Ahn,” said Sonn Ho Chul, a political science professor at Sogang University Seoul. ’’He will need to ride on today’s success and the nomination to prove that he has the ability to lead, and the best way to do that will be in showing how wisely he can handle the Ahn Cheol Soo variable.’’

Regime Change

The winner of the December race will succeed President Lee Myung Bak, whose approval ratings have more than halved since he took office in 2008. His single five-year term comes to a close in February as he faces mounting discontent for failing to deliver on election promises to boost economic growth to an annual 7 percent and per-capita income to $40,000 by 2017.

Moon, who was jailed in 1975 for taking part in demonstrations against Park’s 18-year rule, began his career as a human rights lawyer in 1982 before serving as chief of staff during Roh’s 2003-2008 presidency. Roh leapt to his death in 2009 amid a bribery investigation.

Moon campaigns under the slogan “People First,” calling for an expanded welfare state and stronger regulation against chaebols, family-run multinational businesses like the Samsung and Hyundai Groups. He promises to reduce South Korea’s reliance on nuclear energy by 20 percent until 2030, replacing it with new sustainable energy.

North Korea Engagement

Consistent with his reputation as one of the architects of the “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with North Korea, Moon says he will work for inter-Korean summit talks next year and begin additional economic projects with North Korea to thaw relations. He pledged in his nomination acceptance speech today to send a special envoy to invite North Korea to his inauguration if he becomes president.

Moon’s biggest threat in the Dec. 19 race is the independent software mogul Ahn, who emerged as a possible candidate last October after the man he backed won the Seoul mayoral election.

Ahn’s relative youth at age 50, his success as founder of South Korea’s biggest antivirus software maker Ahnlab Inc. (053800) and donations to charity increase his appeal to younger voters and people dissatisfied with the ruling party and current politicians. While he hasn’t overtly commented on his interest in running for president, he published a book on July 19, outlining his vision for the economy and national security.

The Ahn Factor

Ahn, who currently serves as a dean at Seoul National University, has never run for public office and has openly criticized Lee’s government and both ruling and opposition parties. He said he’ll announce his position on whether he will run for president “within days” of the DUP nomination, according to an e-mailed statement on Sept. 11 from Ahn’s personal spokesman Yu Min Yeong.

Analysts including Jeong Han Wool of East Asia Institute in Seoul say Ahn is likely to play king-maker again, instead of running for president against Park and Moon. He isn’t likely to join an existing political party or create one, as his popularity is founded upon his disassociation from the political establishment, said Jeong, who heads EAI’s Center for Public Opinion Research.

“Ahn could look like a hypocrite to join the party he bashed or create a new party of his own,” he said.

A Sept. 3-7 poll by Seoul-based Realmeter put support for Ahn at 23.4 percent, behind Park’s 41 percent and ahead of Moon at 17.7 percent. The survey of 3,750 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 1.6 percentage points.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sangwon Yoon in Seoul at syoon32@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net; John Brinsley at jbrinsley@bloomberg.net; Paul Tighe at ptighe@bloomberg.net

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