Elections in Korea: the dawn of a new Moon

Moon Jae-in in Korea

The recent presidential election in South Korea, held on 9th May 2017, saw the left-leaning liberal candidate, Moon Jae-in, and his Democratic Party voted to power.

The election took place against a backdrop of scandal, involving the impeachment and dismissal of the previous President, Park Geun-hye.


The impeachment of President Park Geun-hye took place on 9th December 2016, leaving the country in a state of limbo.  Popular support for Park’s presidency had been waning ever since the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014 and, at the time of her impeachment, her approval rating had dropped to 4%.

During the interim period between Park’s impeachment and the May election, former prime minister Hwang Kyo-ahn had acted as president.

Park was arrested on 31st March 2017, and formerly charged with offenses including bribery, abuse of power, and leaking governments secrets.  Park denies all allegations, and a lengthy trial is pending.

Moon Jae-in

Moon Jae-in had been runner up in the 2012 elections, and pre-election polls had consistently placed him as the favourite to succeed Park Geun-hye, in a field, which also included former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (until his withdrawal from the contest in February 2017), Liberty Party candidate Hong Jun-pyo, and People’s Party founder Ahn Cheol-soo.

Moon Jae-in was ultimately elected with a 41% share of the vote, with support in most regions of the country, other than the city of Daegu and the region of Yeongnam in the east of the country.

Human rights

Moon Jae-in is the eldest son of refugees from North Korea, who came to the South during the 1950-53 Korean War.

During his student days, Moon had been a student activist, and he was a founding member of the radical newspaper The Hankyoreh, which claimed to be “the first newspaper in the world truly independent of political power and large capital”.

As a human rights lawyer, he worked with the then future President Roh Moo-hyun, championing issues regarding human and civil rights.

Relations with the North

SOAS alumnus James Pearson (BA Chinese and Korean, 2011) works as a Reuters correspondent, and spoke to Jong Kun Choi, who advises Moon Jae-in on foreign policy.  Jong Kun Choi said that Moon “believes better inter-Korean relations is the best way to provide security on the Korean peninsula.”

Read James’s full article here.

This can only be good news at a time when posturing between the Trump administration in Washington and Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang have threatened the stability of the region.

A return to Sunshine?

South Korea’s foreign policy towards North Korea between 1998 and 2008 was known as the Sunshine Policy.  This policy was initiated under President Kim Dae-jung and continued by his successor Roh Moo-hyun.

The aim of the policy was to create an environment of peaceful co-existence and even cooperation between the two separate countries, based on three basic tenets:

  • Active cooperation by the South
  • No attempt to absorb the North by the South
  • No armed provocation by the North

Moon Jae-in has intimated that he would welcome a return of some kind of rapprochement based on an updating of the old policy to take into account changed circumstances over the past 10 years but, with the continued testing of missiles and nuclear facilities in the North, the success or failure of the initiative may not lay within his power.

Want to learn more?

SOAS University of London offers a module on International Relations of East Asia on both its BA International Relations and its BA Politics degree and has undergraduate degree courses in  BA Korean, and BA Korean and…

At postgraduate level, SOAS offers a module on Northeast Asian Politics: Japan, Korea and Taiwan on its courses on MSc International Politics and MSc Politics of China.


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