SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — New South Korean leaders are used to governing from the shambles of their predecessors’ failed presidencies, given the country’s long history of disgraced ex-leaders.
No recent president-elect, however, has faced wreckage quite like this.
Moon Jae-in, the liberal former human rights lawyer who took up presidential duties after being declared winner of Tuesday’s special election, must lead a country still deeply divided between conservative and liberal — even as he navigates the political mess left by ousted President Park Geun-hye, the imprisoned daughter of a dictator who once jailed Moon for leading student protests.
The historical, political and personal baggage Moon inherits only adds to what’s already one of Asia’s toughest jobs. At home, Moon is expected to tackle festering social, political and economic anger. Then there’s the existential threat that looms across the border with the world’s most belligerent nuclear-armed dictatorship.
The scale of the flame-out by Park, and its implications for how Moon does his job, is hard to overstate.
In just six months, Park went from the country’s most powerful person to languishing in a jail cell as she awaits a corruption trial. Her fall ends a political dynasty founded by her late father, the dictator Park Chung-hee, whose economic policies helped lift South Korea from poverty even as he abused dissidents and trampled the constitution.
Her disgraceful exit does not eliminate the chasm between conservatives and liberals here. That divide has been around since the Korean Peninsula was separated into a U.S.-backed south and Soviet-backed north at the end of World War II, and only widened during her presidency. It may have grown further during the scramble by wounded conservatives to salvage some sort of political direction after her fall.
Moon’s North Korea policy, which will likely mark a big break from Park, risks alienating conservatives yet more.
Moon can point to the failure on North Korea of the last decade of hard-line conservative leadership, including Park’s truncated rule. There have been threats of war, bloodshed and a growing North Korean arsenal of nuclear-armed missiles.
This won’t help Moon with conservatives, many of whom look with shock at his proposals for a softer approach, including possible direct talks with dictator Kim Jong Un, and the possible return of massive inter-Korean projects. This was all tried during a decade of earlier liberal rule, part of which was overseen by Moon’s mentor, late President Roh Moo-hyun. None of it, many conservatives say, did much to check North Korea’s arsenal or its bellicosity toward Seoul.
At home, fury over economic injustice, and especially the sense that big businesses have conspired with the government to fix the rules in a way that bars many regular South Koreans from prospering, drove the huge protests that felled Park.
Park is accused of accepting or pushing for tens of millions of dollars from big corporations, including Samsung, whose head is now jailed on related corruption charges. She denies this.
Moon is a veteran of the fight for democracy against the dictatorships of the 70s and 80s, and his supporters believe he’ll be well-placed to tackle economic injustice.
But Duyeon Kim, a visiting fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul, said that “it remains to be seen whether (Moon) will be able to deliver” the economic and political reforms many South Koreans seek. “It will depend on his presidential priorities and manpower to implement the reforms needed for the kind of ‘true’ democracy desired by the people.”
Moon must also overcome his party’s lack of a majority in a bickering parliament.
Despite the discord, Moon will be leading a country that can feel pride over its handling of the Park scandal. It has shown itself capable of peacefully and democratically driving a leader from office. This is a big deal in South Korea, which has a long history of military coups, bloodily suppressed democracy movements and dictatorships.
“All countries have scandals; what matters is how they handle them. South Korea has proven that it can change things democratically and constitutionally,” said Robert Kelly, a political science professor at Pusan National University in Busan.
With only around an estimated 40 percent of the total vote, Moon’s problem, Kelly says, is that he lacks a strong mandate.
Moon will probably look to reverse three big Park policies: a deal to settle Japan’s sexual enslavement of Korean women during World War II; the closure of the last major symbol of inter-Korean cooperation, a jointly run factory park in the North; and the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system that infuriates China.
Despite what the election numbers suggest, Moon may actually have stronger political support because of widespread dissatisfaction with conservative rule, said John Delury, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
Even so, the job will not be easy.
“Moon is looking straight up at a cliff that he’s got to climb,” Delury said. “This is a very difficult time to govern South Korea.”
Foster Klug, AP’s bureau chief in Seoul, has covered the Koreas since 2005. Follow him at: www.twitter.com/apklug
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