Moon Leads the Pack as South Korea Prepares for Special Election

  • Opposition figures ahead in polls for likely election in May
  • Moon Jae-in, the runner-up to Park in 2012, holds the lead

The race is on.

Park Geun-hye’s ouster from office Friday triggers a South Korean presidential election by early May, with a handful of candidates gearing up for a run at taking over Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

Leading the pack are lawmakers from the center-left Democratic Party of Korea, which will hold a primary in about a month as it seeks to end nine years of conservative rule. No viable candidate has emerged from Park’s ruling Liberty Korea Party, formerly known as Saenuri.

Whoever comes in will face a slew of challenges: the growing threat from North Korea, Chinese retaliation over the Thaad missile-defense system, a slowing economy, and pressure to reform the family-run conglomerates, or chaebol, which played a central role in the scandal that led to Park’s downfall.

A look at South Korea’s economic challenges

While there are some policy differences in the opposition camp, most generally favor a softer approach toward the Pyongyang regime and stronger moves to shake up the chaebol. Below is a brief introduction to the leading contenders and their policies, with their latest approval ratings in a Gallup Korea poll released Friday before the ruling.

Moon Jae-in (32%)

Moon Jae-in

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

The 64-year-old former Democratic Party of Korea chief -- and runner-up to Park in the 2012 election -- is the clear leader in polls. An advocate of closer engagement with North Korea, he believes economic exchanges would help ease tensions as well as provide benefits for South Korean companies. He’s proposed a two-step plan in which the two Koreas first come together economically before moving toward political unification.

Moon has said the next government should review the decision to deploy the Thaad missile shield, which has prompted Beijing to clampdown on tourism to South Korea and take steps against companies such as Lotte Group that operate in China.

He’s pledged to raise disposable incomes, and to get tougher on the chaebol as he views them as hurting smaller enterprises. Even so, he’s said that reform of the conglomerates should be done in a way that doesn’t hurt their bottom line.

Ahn Hee-jung (17%)

Ahn Hee-jung

Source: Yonhap via Bloomberg

The 51-year-old governor of South Chungcheong Province sits in second place. A Democratic Party of Korea member, he rose fast by gaining the backing of centrists and conservatives. His popularity dropped when he appeared to defend Park by saying she probably had good intentions regarding allegations that she pressured companies to donate money to foundations controlled by her friend.

Like Moon, he’s an advocate of engagement with Pyongyang, saying the two nations should return to dialogue, resume tourist trips to North Korea and reopen a joint industrial complex on the northern side of the border.

On the economy, he’s said the government has limited capacity to create jobs, and that regulations should be loosened to make it easier for companies to hire and fire staff.

Ahn Cheol-soo (9%)

Ahn Cheol-soo

Source: Yonhap News via Bloomberg

The 55-year-old former doctor-turned-software tycoon is the former leader of the second-largest opposition People’s Party. He considered a run against Park in the 2012 presidential race, but opted to support another candidate.

On North Korea, he’s called for a two-track approach of sanctions and dialogue, though he’s said that the current tensions make it difficult to resume talks immediately. He would back the deployment of Thaad, but has said he’s open for the missile system to be withdrawn should China cooperate with sanctions on North Korea and signs emerged of a improvement in ties with Pyongyang.

Ahn has said that youth unemployment is South Korea’s most urgent economic issue. He’s pledged to provide subsidies to swell the salaries of employees of smaller companies.

Hwang Kyo-ahn (9%)

Hwang Kyo-ahn

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

The 59-year-old prime minister and acting president has yet to declare his candidacy, but he’s expected to side with the ruling Liberty Korea Party should he run. As things stand, he’s the only conservative out of the five top contenders.

The former prosecutor and justice minister is likely to continue with Park’s hardline policies against North Korea. In a recent speech, he said the government should pressure Pyongyang to drop its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile ambitions and punish any provocation.

Lee Jae-myung (8%)

Lee Jae-myung

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

The 52-year-old mayor of Seongnam city has said he respects Donald Trump and enjoys being compared to Bernie Sanders.

The former human-rights lawyer has called for the reopening of the joint industrial complex with North Korea, and a restart of the program to reunite families divided by the border. He wants Thaad deployment to be suspended, and has said he wouldn’t hesitate to seek a summit with North Korea.

He’s pledged to raise taxes on conglomerates, and has called for the dismantling of the chaebol and higher levies on inheritances.

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