Newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a human rights lawyer, won a snap election, following months of mass protests that ousted President Park Geun-hye last December.
Increasing regional tensions and demonstrations against corruption characterized the presidential race in Asia’s fourth-largest economy. During the campaign, Moon promised to address the systemic problems that led to Park’s impeachment, while also signalling he will do more to ease regional tensions with its isolated neighbor to the North, North Korea.
Here are the four problems Moon pledged to address while campaigning for the post of new South Korean president.
1. Kim Jong-Un’s Nuclear Threat
Moon, the son of refugees from North Korea, favors engagement and cooperation with North Korea. On the campaign trail, Moon repeatedly stated he is open to negotiations with North Korea and willing to meet Kim Jong-un. The nuclear issue is now central to inter-Korean relations. If Moon plans a “Sunshine Policy 2.0” – a revival of dialogue and economic aid to North Korea – he’ll need to convince critics that a new economic relationship with the North will not lead to further nuclear arms development.
2. Two Key Allies
Caught between the U.S. and China, Moon will try to pursue an independent foreign policy.
The new South Korean president will need to address the Trump administration’s conflicted approach to the region. Trump has talked of taking unilateral action against North Korea, but also suggested that he would be honored to meet Kim Jong-un. Trump stressed the importance of the alliance with South Korea, but also said that South Korea should pay for the anti-missile THAAD system the U.S. has deployed on South Korean soil. And, Trump has suggested that the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement will be renegotiated.
Moon also has fences to mend with China, South Korea’s biggest trading partner. China has criticized the deployment of THAAD as an act of aggression aimed at China and retaliated economically by slowing Chinese tourism to South Korea.
Trying to please both sides will be a diplomatic high wire act.
3. The Economy
The scandal that saw the former president arrested on corruption charges highlighted South Korea’s dependence on huge family-owned businesses, or “chaebol,” such as Samsung. Moon has promised to restimulate the flagging economy while checking the power of the chaebols. Even if the new South Korean president achieves this huge task, he will still have to tackle South Korea’s rising youth unemployment and its overreliance on an export economy that made it vulnerable to economic retaliation.
4. Political Reform and Trust Building for South Korean President
The new South Korean president painted himself as the antidote to Park’s corrupt, authoritarian administration. But that scandal is just the tip of the iceberg. The movement that brought millions into the streets of Seoul wants political and institutional reform with greater transparency and more popular participation.
Clearly, the frustration many South Koreans felt about corruption pushed Moon to victory. The question is: Can he distinguish himself from a decade of conservative, pro-big business presidents without being labeled a North Korean sympathizer? Or will he end up yet another in a growing list of disgraced South Korean leaders?