The Cable

3 Things to Watch for in South Korea’s Presidential Election

South Koreans go to the polls Tuesday to select a replacement for ousted President Park Geun-hye — with potentially big implications for the United States.

<> on December 19, 2012 in Seoul, South Korea.
<> on December 19, 2012 in Seoul, South Korea.

South Korea will choose a new president Tuesday amid regional and domestic turmoil that could drive record numbers of voters to the polls. What exactly does that mean for the country and its relationship with the United States?

It’s a complicated question. But here are three pieces of the answer:

A return to Sunshine Policy?

After nearly a decade of conservative rule, in which Seoul favored a more confrontational approach to Pyongyang, South Koreans seem poised to pick a progressive leader who has advocated a softer line toward North Korea and said he would be open to talks with the Kim Jong Un regime.

“I could sit down with Kim Jong Un … when preconditions of resolving the nuclear issue are assured,” Moon Jae-in of the liberal Democratic Party told the Washington Post in an interview. Moon, currently leading in the polls by nearly 20 percent, is closely associated with the “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with North Korea — promoting economic aid and dialogue in hopes of building trust — which he supported as an aide to the last liberal president, Roh Moo-hyun.

Moon’s election could have potentially cascading effects on U.S.-South Korea relations, which have been rattled by President Donald Trump’s recent statements on North Korea, trade, and the U.S.-built THAAD anti-missile defense system. Trump told Reuters in an April interview that he wanted Seoul to foot the billion-dollar bill for THAAD, despite an already established agreement between the two countries, outraging a key U.S. ally in the process.

In contrast to his conservative opponents, Moon has been vocal about reassessing the risks and benefits of THAAD, which became operational early last week and whose hasty deployment prompted criticism that the United States was trying to push it through before election day. “It’s only right for the THAAD deployment issue to be decided by the next administration,” Moon said in March.

Corruption and political reform

Two months after former President Park Geun-hye was removed from office by Korea’s Constitutional Court, triggering snap presidential elections, political stagnation and a power vacuum in the Blue House have left the country rudderless and South Koreans frustrated.

Park became embroiled in a sprawling corruption scandal in late 2016 that implicated some of the country’s largest conglomerates, including Samsung, whose de facto leader, Jay Y. Lee, has been languishing in a jail cell near Seoul since he was arrested in February on bribery charges. Park herself was formally indicted last month on 18 criminal charges — including bribery, extortion, and abuse of power — and her trial opened on May 2 amid fierce demonstrations.  

This has underscored for some voters the unshakable influence of Korea’s family-owned conglomerates, known as chaebol, which have benefited enormously from decades of close government cooperation. According to local pollster Realmeter, in a survey published May 3, a plurality of respondents — 27.5 percent — chose a candidate’s intention to tackle entrenched corruption as their top criterion when selecting whom to vote for, followed by economic reform and national security, at 24.5 percent and 18.5 percent, respectively.

High voter turnout

Early voting took place last Thursday and Friday for the first time in a presidential election since it was introduced in local elections in 2014, with a record-high number of voters participating.  

According to Korea’s National Election Commission (NEC), a total of 11 million voters, or 26 percent of the country’s 42 million eligible voters, cast ballots at more than 3,500 pre-polling stations nationwide during the two-day early voting period. That is more than double the number of early voters in the 2016 National Assembly elections, where the early voting turnout rate was 12 percent, or one-fifth of the total number of voters who cast ballots in that election, the NEC said in a statement.

This increase in turnout seems to indicate the public’s heightened interest in the election, especially among the young, and its high demand for a change in power. Nearly 87 percent of respondents surveyed by the NEC said they intended to vote in the election, up from 80 percent in the last presidential election in 2012. Interest in the election from younger voters, many of whom mobilized in large numbers early this year to demand the resignation of former President Park, saw an increase from 85 percent in 2012 to 95 percent. Youth unemployment, a key issue for voters under 30, hit an all-time high in 2016 of 9.8 percent, and a higher turnout of young people is seen as a boon to Moon, who has promised to create more than 800,000 public sector jobs.

The most recent polling by Gallup Korea put Democratic Party candidate Moon strongly in the lead, with 38 percent, followed by Ahn Cheol-soo of the center-left People’s Party, with 20 percent.

That means the next president of South Korea will have something of a mandate from the population.

Photo credit: CHUNG SUNG-JUN/Getty Images

Shannon Schweitzer is the copy chief at Foreign Policy.

  Twitter: @sschweitzer10

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