South Korea Poised for Change After Months of Political Upheaval

  • Moon Jae-in tipped to end nine years of conservative rule
  • North Korea policy dominates election campaign to replace Park

South Korea Poised for Change

After one of South Korea’s most tumultuous political periods in recent memory, voters appear ready for change.

The nation of 52 million people heads to the polls Tuesday in an election triggered by the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye, who has been detained on corruption charges. Moon Jae-in, the left-leaning frontrunner, has promised to rein in conglomerates that dominate the economy, create jobs for disaffected youth and seek talks with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Moon Jae-in

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

“Like elsewhere in the world, particularly in France, voters are fed up with the establishment and wanting a new political order,” said Rhee Jong-hoon, a research fellow at Myongji University in Seoul who writes about South Korean politics. “The confusion we have now is the pain of a society trying to move on to a developed nation from a developing one.”

A victory for Moon, 64, would end nine years of conservative rule after the graft scandal involving Park sparked the biggest street protests since the 1980s. He has attracted support among a younger generation struggling to find work in an economy still dominated by conglomerates known as chaebol that helped modernize the nation following the Korean War.

Moon’s stance on North Korea would however risk a clash with the Trump administration, which has said military force is an option to dismantle Kim’s nuclear program. The U.S. rushed to deploy a missile shield in South Korea shortly despite objections from Moon, who wants the next leader to review the decision.

While South Korea’s stock index hit a record last week as the global economic outlook improves, benchmark bond yields are near a 15-month high and the won posted the worst performance among Asian currencies last month. Asia’s fourth-biggest economy, which grew faster than expected last quarter, is forecast to expand this year at the slowest pace since 2012.

Read more about how the election is a sideshow for traders

Ahn Cheol-Soo

Photographer: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Moon’s rivals include Ahn Cheol-soo, 55, of the centrist People’s Party, and Hong Joon-pyo of the Liberty Korea Party, an offshoot of Park’s conservative wing. Hong has received support from some lawmakers in the center-right Bareun Party, which officially nominated Yoo Seong-min.

A record 26.1 percent of more than 42 million voters have already cast ballots, with many doing so at Seoul’s international airport before flying out to take advantage of three national holidays last week. Voting on Tuesday starts at 6 a.m. and closes at 8 p.m., with results expected later that night.

Park’s impeachment in March means the winner will take office without a transition period. She’s facing trial over allegations she received bribes from top business leaders including Samsung Group heir apparent Jay Y. Lee. Both deny any wrongdoing.

Moon and Ahn, a former software tycoon, have pledged to reduce the political influence of the chaebol, which account for almost three quarters of the main index’s market capitalization. They’ve promised to tackle a youth unemployment rate that has doubled over two decades, with Moon looking to the government to create jobs and Ahn favoring the private sector.

Read about how Korea Inc. is ready to kill major reforms after the election

Hong, 62, has appealed to South Korea’s older voters who grew up with the chaebol and had nostalgia for Park, whose father Park Chung-hee oversaw a military regime for almost two decades before he was assassinated in 1979. Hong wants to crack down on labor unions, cut corporate tax and give “freedom” to conglomerates.

Still, the campaign period has been dominated by the tensions with North Korea. President Donald Trump has stepped up pressure on the regime to drop its pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that can hit North America.

The midnight deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, which became operational last week, generated controversy. Moon has called for the next president to review Thaad, while Ahn said it must proceed after talks with local residents. Hong, a self-described strongman referred to in local media as “Hong Trump,” says he wants the U.S. to bring tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea.

Moon, the son of North Korean refugees, has the softest approach to Pyongyang among the top contenders.

Read about how Moon’s military experience shaped his views on North Korea

“He won’t just follow the footsteps of Trump all the time,” said Nam Chang-hee, a professor at Inha University who has advised the South Korea’s Unification Ministry. “The close cooperation among South Korea, the U.S., China and Japan under the Park government could weaken.”

Emotions are running deep among the top three contenders. Moon has called Hong’s conservative wing a “deep-rooted evil” that should be wiped out. Ahn has described Moon as “worse than a brute” for not being thankful for his endorsement in the 2012 presidential race. Hong says Moon could spell the end of the U.S-South Korea alliance.

Whoever wins will need to navigate parliament. Lawmakers are considering a constitutional change to reduce the powers of the president, who is now limited to a single five-year term. While Moon’s party is the largest in parliament, procedural rules require a consensus among major parties before a bill is put up for a vote.

Those divisions could lead to gridlock until the next parliamentary vote in 2020, according to Choi Chang-ryul, a professor at Yong In University.

“What we’re going to see,” he said, “is a hostile coexistence.”

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