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:
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
Seoul May 11 2017
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