According to exit polls, liberal candidate Moon Jae-in won South Korea’s emergency presidential election by a wide margin, succeeding impeached conservative president Park Geun-hye.
CNN reports exit polls showed Moon receiving 41.4 percent of the vote, while conservative candidate Hong Jun-pyo drew 23.3 percent and centrist Ahn Cheol-soo came in third with 21.8 percent. The exit polls did not include early voting, which accounts for about 25 percent of the total, so the final results will probably vary. Turnout was said to be the highest recorded since 1997.
Hong was the candidate from Park’s Saenuri (“New Frontier”) Party, which renamed itself the “Liberty Korea Party” in an effort to distance itself from Park. He stated that he would “accept the result of the election,” a comment widely interpreted as a speedy concession to Moon’s victory.
Moon, who ran unsuccessfully against Park Geun-hye in the 2012 election, attributed his “landslide victory” to “the desperation of the people for a new government.”
“I felt the people’s earnest desire for government change to create a country worthy of being called a nation,” he said after casting his own vote.
Unsurprisingly, given the disastrous end of Park Geun-hye’s presidency in a massive influence-peddling scandal, corruption was the top issue in the campaign, followed by economic growth and national security. Older South Koreans tended to be more concerned about security, while younger voters told pollsters they were more worried about corruption and the flagging economy. Youth unemployment has been running particularly high in South Korea of late.
The national security implications of Moon’s victory, for both South Korea and the United States, could be profound. Moon advocates a less confrontational posture toward North Korea and has been critical of the deployment of the American THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea.
North Korean media portrayed the election of Moon as a triumph for Pyongyang.
“The tragic North and South Korean relationship had been brought on by the conservative groups, which have been in power for the past 10 years. They revived the period of confrontation and maximized the political and military confrontation. If the conservative clique is to come into power again, the tragedy will be extended,” said an editorial in North Korea’s state-controlled Rodong Sinmun newspaper.
Ahead of the election, former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief John Pomfret wrote that a Moon victory “would also be viewed in two other Asian capitals – Beijing and Pyongyang – as evidence that their hard-line policies toward South Korea have succeeded,” since Moon advocated closer ties to both North Korea and China.
“A warmer policy toward North Korea would constitute a victory for its young leader, Kim Jong Un. Since taking power almost five years ago, Kim has accelerated the pace of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile programs. And if Beijing emerges from the election with a South Korean government more amenable to China’s wishes than the Park administration, this would amount to a victory for hard-liners in Beijing’s government who have treated South Korea shabbily for more than a year,” Pomfret added.
The Korea Herald notes that Moon promised what amounts to “a complete overhaul of the country, which he and his supporters see as being bogged down in ‘accumulated evils.'”
His campaign promises included a pledge to create 810,000 new government jobs while cracking down on the chaebol family-controlled business conglomerates that are seen as having undue influence over South Korean politics. The term chaebol literally means “rich family” One of the better-known examples in the United States is Samsung, which was involved in the scandals that brought down President Park.
Under Korean election law, he will have a full five-year term to deliver on his promises, not just the remainder of Park’s vacated term.