On Tuesday, South Koreans will go to the polls to vote for a new president, following the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye last March over a corruption scandal. South Korea is a young democracy which has made astonishing progress since it forced open elections during mass protests in 1987. Following massive peaceful protests on the streets of Seoul earlier this year, Ms Park’s impeachment was an unprecedented and historic event.
The scandal – involving a shady confidante, bribery allegations, and murky ties with some of South Korea’s biggest conglomerates – has galvanised voters. Over 10 million South Koreans took part in early voting introduced for the first time on Thursday and Friday.
South Korea’s global significance grows year on year. The world’s 12th largest economy and 5th biggest export economy, South Korea has also become a cultural powerhouse with the rise of K-pop, Korean food and fashion dominating across Asia and beyond.
The successful candidate will arrive in office at a time of huge national importance. The Korean economy is suffering from high youth unemployment, and a country dominated economically by the chaebols (big corporations including Samsung and Hyundai) which some argue should be split up to increase economic competitiveness. The rising geo-political tensions over Kim Jong-un’s ongoing missile program in North Korea are also threatening economic headwinds.
The timing of the Park crisis has left a political vacuum at a critical moment in the country’s history, with an unelected interim president left to face the North Korea crisis. Tensions with China are also rising over Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), a missile defence system installed in South Korea with US support and strongly opposed by Beijing. This has led to punitive but damaging economic measures by China, restricting Chinese tourism to South Korea and dramatically halting the exports of popular Korean goods, including cosmetics.
South Korea is a vital ally to both the US and Britain. British exports to Korea have boomed over recent years, following the successful EU-Korea Free Trade Agreement. Traditionally, Europe has had a marginal role in Korean affairs. However, Britain will be seeking to secure a trade deal with South Korea in the coming years, and the next president will be hugely important in any agreement.
The three leading candidates in this election are: Moon Jae-in, the Democratic Party candidate running on a liberal ticket; Ahn-Cheol-soo, the People’s Party candidate and a political centrist; and Hong-Jong-pyo, a Conservative with the Liberty Korea Party – the same party of ousted President Ms Park. Soon, one of these men will be the leader of one of the world’s most crucial rising powers. So let’s take a look at them in more detail.
Moon Jae-in – A former human rights lawyer, Moon is currently leading the polls on over 40% and is widely expected to finish victorious. Moon is calling for a new type of economics, termed “J-economics”, which promises to increase public spending and create hundreds of thousands of new public sector jobs in the process. Moon has also pledged to clean up politics, vowing not to take up the iconic Blue House (the official presidential residence left vacant following Ms Park’s impeachment and which has arguably become the seat of scandal) and instead move to central Government offices.
Ahn Cheol-soo – Ahn is a doctor, professor, computer software engineer and famous author. In 1995, he established AhnLab, which became South Korea’s largest producer of antivirus software and made him a famous name in South Korea, widely respected both by young and old. Ahn is handicapped by a split electorate; Korea is divided by those who identify as conservatives and liberals, with Ahn struggling to successfully court either vote. Regardless, Ahn remains popular – he has stated that the Brexit vote proves that polls are not always correct and a late-swing would be unlikely although not beyond the realms of possibility.
Hong Jun-pyo – A former lawmaker and regional governor, Hong is polling just under 20% and is winning the vote amongst conservatives in the Southern provinces. Hong is running on a ticket promising to be a “strongman” for Korea on the world stage, similar to how Donald Trump and Xi Jinping are perceived. A staunch supporter of the US-Korea relationship, Hong supports the deployment of the THAAD missile defence system and has coined the term “armed peace”, which supports higher defence budget spending.
What does this mean for North Korea and the world
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Whoever wins, we can expect to see serious change on South Korean policy towards the North. The vacated office has meant South Korea has been without a vocal policy towards the North at a time of huge tensions, amidst the election of Trump and changing US policy in the region, following a series of North Korea missile tests. In a recent TV debate Moon said:
“I am confident to lead the diplomatic efforts involving multiple parties, which will lead to the complete abandonment of the North Korean nuclear program, and bring the relationship between South and North to peace, economic cooperation and mutual prosperity.”
Ahn has also called for further dialogue with North Korea, whilst Hong supports a more hardline approach to links with Pyongyang. Whoever wins, South Korea will continue to play an increasingly vital and valuable role both in East Asian and world affairs.
Jack Hands is a writer and researcher who was formerly living in South Korea. He has contributed to The Guardian, The Diplomat, Sky News and Arirang TV discussing Korean affairs. Jack sits on the Executive Committee of the British Korea Society.