South Korea’s new president faces many challenges: A new day in Seoul

South Korea’s new president faces many challenges, but offers a reason for hope

Published - May 11, 2017 12:02 am IST

The election of the moderate Moon Jae-in as South Korea’s President marks a decisive break from the bitter divisions and scandals that unsettled the country’s administrative and political equilibrium in recent months. Mr. Moon won 41% of the vote, almost double that of his nearest rival. In the wake of the polarising tenure of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who was ousted through the impeachment route, he appeared conciliatory during the election campaign, emphasising the need to move on. Indications of Mr. Moon’s willingness to engage with the troubling issues in the region came after he was sworn in on Wednesday, when he declared his intention to visit Pyongyang and hold discussions with Washington, Beijing and Tokyo. With this, the veteran human rights lawyer struck a positive note for the kind of multilateralism required to lower tensions in the Korean peninsula. The bold announcement should allay the apprehensions of sceptics who would have assumed that Mr. Moon may be rather soft towards the North, as well as those who feared that engaging Pyongyang could alienate the U.S. The fact remains that any realistic prospect of containing North Korea’s nuclear posturing depends on two inter-related factors: marginalising the hawks in Washington and impressing upon Kim Jong-un’s regime the economic and political consequences of defying multilateral norms.

Mr. Moon’s other big regional challenge is the U.S.-backed installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system on South Korean soil. Interception of North Korea’s increasingly sophisticated missile launches is behind this, but the development has raised concerns in Beijing, which thinks the THAAD radar could undermine its own defence infrastructure. Assuaging such Chinese fears will not be easy and Beijing would like nothing less than the complete withdrawal of the defence shield. Although Mr. Moon has promised to renegotiate the THAAD installation, it is premature to speculate on Washington’s response. But a more rapid restoration of cultural, tourism and trade relations between Seoul and Beijing appears possible given Mr. Moon’s accommodative stance. Peaceful coexistence is imperative among neighbours, a consideration that will hopefully prevail over other factors. At home, Seoul has in recent months been rocked by the influence-peddling scandal involving Ms. Park and executives from top business houses, leading to her eventual ouster. After rallying a large number of citizens behind the unprecedented protests, the President has raised expectations of a more transparent and accountable corporate governance culture in South Korea’s conventional chaebol system of family-owned businesses. In realising that unenviable task, Mr. Moon can count on a demonstrably vibrant and independent judiciary and an effective parliament. It will not be smooth sailing, but there is reason for hope.

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