Restart for democracy in South Korea

For once, opinion polls proved reliable as Moon Jae-In, a 64-year-old, left-of-centre human rights lawyer was declared winner of South Korea’s presidential election by a wide margin in the early hours of Wednesday, May 10. He succeeds Park Geun-Hye, daughter of Park Chung-Hee, the military dictator who ruled Korea from 1961 to 1979. Ms Park was removed from office last December by impeachment, following a massive corruption scandal, and is currently in detention and on trial.

Moon took office and started his five-year term also on Wednesday. He outlined the style of government he plans to deliver in a short inaugural speech.

“First of all,” Moon said, “I will end the authoritarian culture of the presidency. As soon as preparations are done, I will [move out of The Blue House] and begin the era of the Gwanghwamun presidency. I will hold head-to-head discussions with my staff. I will be a president who communicates with the people frequently. I will directly brief the press on major issues. On the way home, I will meet and converse with citizens in the markets. At times, I will hold large debates in Gwanghwamun Square. I will disperse the president's imperial powers as much as possible. Law enforcement authorities will become fully independent from politics. I will establish systems to put all power organizations in check so that no such body can exercise infinite powers. I will work in a humble manner. I will be a president who shares his viewpoints with the people. I will solve the security crisis promptly. I will go anywhere for the peace of the Korean Peninsula,” said Moon.

In a break with tradition, he plans to work from regular government offices near Gwanghwamun Square, in central Seoul, rather than the isolated presidential palace known as The Blue House.

Moon’s accession prompted a wave of optimism that swept the country. After almost six months of mammoth, peaceful protests nationwide there were street celebrations. Despite the euphoria, no-one underestimates the difficult tasks ahead.

The new president inherits an in-tray of problems. These include:

  • North Korea: Relations between North and South declined after 2008 when a conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak announced a hard line on North Korea.  The North responded in like manner. A South Korean tourist was shot and killed in North Korea in 2008. In 2010, North Korea sank the Cheonan, a South Korean warship.  Also, that year, the North shelled Yeonpyeong, a South Korean island, damaging both civilian and military buildings. Inevitably, as the North accelerated its nuclear program joint projects and aid for the North were suspended.  Moon Jae-in, has promised a softer approach than his conservative predecessors. He has pledged to increase economic and cultural cooperation with the North, and hopes eventually to create a single market on the Korean Peninsula. As a new initiative,  Moon says he will cooperate with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to let North Korea send its delegation to the Pyeong Chang Winter Olympic Games to be hosted by South Korea in 2018.  During the administrations Moon’s two predecessors, Lee Myung-Bak (2008-13) and Park Geun-Hye (2013-2016), all inter-Korean relations were completely severed and North Korea significantly improved its nuclear and missile capabilities. Nine years of a  conservative hard-line approach to North Korea has only made problems more difficult. A change in approach is long overdue.


  •  THAAD & China: THAAD, an advanced U.S. anti-missile system was deployed in southeastern South Korea earlier this year in response to North Korean missile tests. China claims it enables US surveillance of Chinese airspace and has imposed economic sanctions on South Korea. These include halting package tours of Chinese tourists to South Korea, stopping all cultural exchanges, curtailing the sale of Korean products from cars to cosmetics. China has also forced Lotte, South Korea’s largest retailer, to suspend business at 87 of their 88 supermarkets in China, costing the firm over GBP 500 million in the last three months. As South Korea's biggest trading partner, accounting for a quarter of its exports, China exerts enormous pressures. Clearly, THAAD has exacerbated problems. Removing it would pacify China but might be seen as diminishing security for Japan, the USA, and also South Korea.  Such an intricate tangle will need skilful diplomacy to resolve.
  • Trump: The USA is the major security guarantor for South Korea and a leading economic partner. The USA maintains about 37,500 military personnel in South Korea, including the Eighth U.S. Army and Seventh Air Force. Trump has already said he expects Korea to shoulder more of the costs and has threatened to terminate the free trade agreement between the two. Trump’s sheer unpredictability is a new hazard not only for any Korean government to navigate but also for Japan, China, and other regional players.

Other prominent, more domestic, issues include constitutional reform, eliminating political corruption, creating jobs (especially for young people), expanding social welfare, improving public safety, tackling gender inequalities and human rights issues, raising South Korea’s chronically low birth rate, tackling air pollution, and improving governance of the chaebol, the large family-controlled conglomerates that dominate South Korea’s economy.

The list also includes two issues that provoked the initial demonstrations that culminated in Park Geun-Hye’s impeachment. Firstly, a thorough investigation of what led to the sinking of the SEWOL ferry and the death of 304 mainly schoolchildren passengers in 2014. Secondly,  the scrapping of an unpopular agreement Park unilaterally reached with Japan 2015 to resolve issues over Japan's sexual enslavement of Korean women during World War II.

 Expectations are high. More than 80 percent of South Koreans expect their new President to “skillfully manage state affairs,” a survey showed on May 11th. New presidencies always open on a hopeful note.  What differs this time is that the South Korean population have shown they can hold their government to account and wish to rid the country of the corruptions that have tarnished their young democracy.

 Note: Moon's complete inaugural speech, in English, here

David Kilburn

Seoul May 11 2017  

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Comment by Susthama Kim on May 12, 2017 at 22:42
What a great post! To think that South Korea's leadership is moving towards a more humble and less elitist position while America seems to be moving into a more fascist one is fascinating. It feels like we are at a tipping point in history.
Comment by David Brazier on May 11, 2017 at 19:06

Thank you, David. That is a wonderfully clear summary of the situation which will help all of us to understand what is going on over there and put it into an international perspective. I hope you will continue to give us reports when there are significant events in the region. Super.

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