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South Korea's Election What we know so far

While the candidates have all talked about reforming the family-controlled conglomerates known as chaebol, that could be easier said than done.

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South Korea presidential candidate Moon Jae-In attends a prayer session marking Buddha's birthday on May 3, 2017 play

South Korea presidential candidate Moon Jae-In attends a prayer session marking Buddha's birthday on May 3, 2017

(AFP)

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South Koreans turned out Tuesday to elect a successor to former President Park Geun-hye, who was forced from office in a corruption scandal. The three leading candidates offer a stark choice for voters.

Moon Jae-in, the candidate for the Liberal Party who has been leading in polls, is open to a dialogue with North Korea. He said Tuesday that he was hopeful of victory. “I gave my body and soul to the very end,” he said of his campaign.

Ahn Cheol-soo, a centrist who represents the People’s Party, has expressed support for the deployment by the United States of an anti-missile system on South Korean soil — which Moon criticizes. Ahn appealed to people to vote, saying the election “will change the future of this country.” He was running second in polls when a mandatory cutoff on releasing new survey results took effect a week ago.

Hong Joon-pyo, the candidate of Park’s conservative Liberty Korea Party, wants to maintain a tough stance against North Korea. After casting his vote in Seoul on Tuesday morning, he said the election was a “choice between a pro-North Korean, leftist regime or a government that will protect a free South Korea.” A week before the vote, he was running third.

— Turnout is heavy: The National Election Commission said that by 2 p.m., eight hours after the polls opened, voter turnout was at 60 percent, 7 percentage points higher than at the same point in the last presidential election, in 2012. The polls close at 8 p.m.

— The most recent Gallup poll showed Moon with 38 percent support, Ahn with 20 percent and Hong with 16 percent in a field of 13 candidates.

— The stock market in South Korea was closed Tuesday but has had a strong run leading up to the election. Its main stock index rose 2.3 percent Monday, and in 2017 it is up more than 13 percent despite the political uncertainty.

— While the candidates have all talked about reforming the family-controlled conglomerates known as chaebol, that could be easier said than done.

— The campaign has revolved around an important wild card, one the candidates are fighting to prove they are uniquely equipped to handle: President Donald Trump.

What’s at Stake?

The election was called to select the replacement for Park, who was forced from office in March after being impeached and accused of collecting or demanding $52 million in bribes from Samsung and other big businesses. Park, the daughter of the assassinated military dictator Park Chung-hee, now lives in a prison cell.

During huge, monthslong rallies that propelled her impeachment, South Koreans called for the ouster of not only Park, a conservative icon, but also what they called jeokpae, the entrenched corruption and incompetence that people said have bedeviled government after government here.

Moon, a liberal opposition leader, rode the wave of anti-Park sentiment and catapulted into the lead of the presidential race. On the campaign trail, he called for “regime change” and promised a “national cleanup.”

If Moon wins, it will mean the return of liberal forces to the center of control after nine years of conservative rule. The conservatives, who have governed South Korea except for a decade of progressive power from 1998 to 2008, would once again take a back seat.

Park, the last conservative president, and her conservative predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, had worked closely with the United States to enforce sanctions and otherwise press North Korea to give up its nuclear and long-range ballistic missile programs. But those programs have only expanded.

Moon argues that however distasteful the North Korean regime is, South Korea, the United States and others must use dialogue and economic exchanges to build trust and persuade the North to negotiate away its weapons.

But conservative rivals like Hong call that vision naive, arguing that North Korea will use negotiations to extract concessions from the South while never giving up its weapons.

If the winner of the election pursues dialogue with North Korea, he could also be accused of disrupting the U.S.-led international efforts to squeeze the North with sanctions. Straining relations with Washington is a risky gamble in South Korea, where people have taken a seamless alliance with the United States as a bedrock of their national security.

The Challenges for the Winner

The new president must deal with both Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea who remains determined to expand his arsenal of nuclear missiles, and Trump, whose approach to the North has alarmed many South Koreans as confusing and even dangerous.

Trump has warned of a “major, major conflict” with North Korea but has also said he would be “honored” to meet Kim under the right circumstances.

Trump has also unsettled South Koreans by accusing them of not paying enough for the presence of U.S. troops stationed in the country and by threatening to kill a free-trade agreement with Seoul, which he said took away jobs from Americans. He also said he thought South Korea should pay for the $1 billion missile-defense system the United States has installed in the country despite protests.

Moon said that if elected, he would “review” whether an agreement, made under Park, over the deployment of the U.S. missile defense battery, known as THAAD, was in South Korea’s best interest. But “it will be difficult for Moon to back out of something not only signed but also deployed,” said Yun Sun, a senior associate with the East Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington.

At home, the new president must address the mounting public grievances against deep-rooted corrupt ties between government and businesses that brought about Park’s downfall. All candidates have pledged to reform the chaebol, the family-controlled conglomerates that have dominated the economy for decades, to make them more transparent.

Jitters are also running high over slowing economic growth, rising household debt and soaring unemployment rates among youths. But whoever wins the election would find it hard to enact change through the deeply fractured National Assembly, where no political party controls a majority.

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