South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, cannot rely on his resounding election victory for long. Analyst Sven Schwersensky tells DW that Moon has to deliver on difficult issues, both domestically and regionally.
DW: It wasn’t a surprise that Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party won the South Korean presidential election, but the margin with which he defeated other candidates was quite big. Did you expect the outcome?
Sven Schwersensky: The final result was pretty much what the polls had predicted, but what came as a surprise was that the second in race from former President Park Geun-hye’s party, Hong Joon Pyo, lost by a significant margin. This was not expected by many in South Korea.
One noticeable thing in the election was that about 30 percent of voters cast a blank ballot. This, in my opinion, was a protest by a large number of conservative voters who showed their mistrust to all presidential candidates.
It also shows that Moon now has a very important task to perform, most importantly to work for social cohesion to overcome deep divisions and polarization in the country. This is going to be a huge but essential task. An important step in this regard will be constitutional reforms, which Moon said he would strive for and make a preliminary decision on it next year.
South Korea is facing a number of crises. The unemployment is growing, the income gap is expanding, corruption is on the rise, and then there is a worsening conflict with North Korea. How can Moon deal with so many issues?
Unlike his predecessors, Moon was sworn in immediately after the polls. He has already taken some steps to address the issues. He has ordered the setting up of a job creation committee. Moon promised during his election campaign that he would create 170,000 new jobs in the public sector alone and a total of more than 800,000 jobs over the five years of his presidential term.
How difficult will it be for the new president to regain public confidence in the government?
Moon needs to establish a different form of political communication, both with parliament and the people. After his victory, he held meetings with the leaders of all political parties represented in parliament and offered them his cooperation. These were short meetings but they show that the new president wants to work together with everyone.
Moon says he wants to start a dialogue with North Korea, building on the approach of his mentor and former President Roh. He also said he was willing to visit Pyongyang under favorable conditions. How do you expect Moon to deal with the crisis unfolding on the Korean Peninsula?
With the appointments of the secretary of the union and the prime minister, Moon has signaled that he wants to proceed very quickly on his election promises regarding North Korea. At the same time, however, Moon has made it clear that he is aware of the fact that the stringent international sanctions imposed on Pyongyang are necessary.
I think the new South Korean president would like to resume talks on the reopening of Kaesong and, perhaps he will initiate other joint economic projects with the North. It will be beneficial for South Korea’s economy.
To what extent has the conflict with North Korea affected the election result?
It is always the case that the conservative camp plays up the fear of a possible North Korean attack and the liberal bloc advocates peace and tries to convince the people that the conflict with Pyongyang cannot be resolved through military means. This time too, the same question dominated the election campaign. Moon, however, has apparently benefited from the North Korea issue, because the conservatives, as well as the United States, overstated the topic.
In his election campaign, Moon hinted that he wanted South Korea to rely less on the United States. What will it mean for the US-South Korea relations and, significantly for the future of the US’ deployment of the THAAD missile defense system?
I think Moon would want a more self-assertive role for South Korea in its dealing with the US. The missile defense system was an important topic in the last phase of the election campaign when US President Donald Trump and his security adviser pointed that Seoul must fund THAAD completely or at least jointly, like other security measures. The Moon administration will also focus on improving ties with China. Nevertheless, whether it will get South Korea any concessions on the missile defense system is unclear.
Sven Schwersensky is the country representative for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Seoul.
The interview was conducted by Esther Felden.