South Korea elects second Catholic president

Moon Jae-in may clash with Trump over the North, struggle to balance a delicate economy
South Korea elects second Catholic president

Former-human rights lawyer Moon Jae-In stands on a stage to greet supporters as exit polls began suggesting a landslide victory, in the central Gwanghwamun district of Seoul on May 9. On the following the day, Moon began his five-year term as president of South Korea. (Photo by Ed Jones/AFP)

North Asia's Christian stronghold, South Korea, has elected the Catholic liberal Moon Jae-in from the Democratic Party of Korea, in a landslide with about 40 per cent of the votes in a three-way race.

As the son of North Korean immigrants, whose policies towards the North are less aggressive than his predecessors, Moon succeeds the disgraced Park Gyuen-hye, who was impeached in February and has since been arrested on corruption charges.

Moon won 41 percent of the vote followed by conservative Hong Jun-pyo with 24 percent and centrist Ahn Cheol-soo with 21 percent. The 64-year-old is the nations' second Catholic leader after Kim Dae jung (1998-2003).

The former human rights lawyer has said he would skip a lavish inauguration ceremony and start work straight away.

Koreans now expect a more accountable government system and Moon has vowed to vacate the Blue House palace and instead work from the central government offices. Moon has also pledged to end the use of presidential pardons for executives found guilty of corruption.

"After the corruption scandal we had, I want a president that will serve with honesty, a president whose interest is centered on the country not on his close friends," said a 57-year-old woman.

 

Voting station in South Korea's presidential election. People cast their votes on May 9. (Photos by Yoseph Mun)

 

Among his challenges, Moon inherits a fragile economy that is the world's 12th largest.

People who have worked closely with the Moon campaign say that he will be careful not to damage the country's slight economic recovery. Recent economic data show exports have been rising for six straight months.

His economic adviser is the conservative Kim Kwang-doo. Some analysts have said Kim may be named prime minister or a senior cabinet minister in the new administration. Like Kim, some of Moon's other key advisers are also long-time advocates of tax cuts and lower regulations.

More than 11 percent of people who are 15-29 years of age and eligible to work were unemployed in March, much higher than South Korea's overall unemployment rate of 4.2 percent, according to Statistics Korea.

"I voted for him because of his job promises and at the same time he seems unlikely he will raise taxes," said a 27-year-old Korean.

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Reform platform

Moon began his final campaign trail by holding a press conference at the Democratic Party of Korea headquarters in Yeouido, western Seoul, saying his victory would enable his administration to achieve profound reform.

Among those reforms there could be a different political approach towards the neighbor North, especially amid the global and regional turmoil surrounding the Korean Peninsula.

During the election campaign, Moon suffered political attacks from his rivals over this issue linked to his supposed flexible stance on North Korea which may bring him into conflict with the increasingly bellicose stance of the U.S. under the Trump administration. Moon favors dialogue with North Korea to ease rising tension over its accelerating nuclear and missile program.

 

South Koreans gather to watch the results of the country's presidential elections. Winner, Moon Jae-in is the country's second Catholic premier. (Photos by Yoseph Mun)

 

A former South Korean ambassador to the Vatican, who declined to be named, told ucanews.com, that Moon won his battle on the ground during the political campaign. "More than anything in matters like national security, he has definitely given more assurances than the other candidates, and that paid off," the former ambassador said.

While the opposition labeled Moon as  pro-North Korea, the former envoy said that in the whole of South Korea there is no one who is pro-North Korea.

"South Koreans wish not to antagonize their neighbor," he said. "They want to find peaceful solutions, and that is also one reason why Moon got a lot of young people's support, because the young people have more to lose from any deterioration of the political relations between the two countries."

South Koreans wanted change and the experienced Moon was more prone to bring about that change, he said. Moon was more experienced than other candidates and was closer to social problems and relative issues.

However, the new president faces working with a fractured parliament where his Democratic Party holds 40 percent of the single-chamber, 299-seat assembly, which will mean the need for coalitions to pass bills.

"My thought previously to the outcome of this election was that whoever the next president may be he would have to cooperate with the other parties, but in Moon's case I have the feeling that he will follow the public opinion which at the moment is all for more transparency in the government and more dialogue with the North," the former envoy added.

South Korea is one of the most Christian countries in Asia with the religion being the country's most popular, according for 29.2 percent of the population according to a 2006 census. Catholics make up 7.9 percent and Protestants 19.7 percent but all denominations are thought to have increased numbers in the past decade.

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