Friday 24 November 2017

New leader in Seoul wants peace talks with North

South Korea's president-elect Moon Jae-in thanks supporters at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul, South Korea
South Korea's president-elect Moon Jae-in thanks supporters at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul, South Korea

Nicola Smith in Seoul

South Korea elected a left-leaning president for the first time in a decade yesterday, in a landslide that could lead to peace talks with the pariah North Korean regime and a potential clash with America.

The election of Moon Jae-in (64), a former human rights lawyer and leader of the liberal Democratic Party, will radically change the political landscape of Asia’s fourth largest economy just two months after the impeachment of conservative President Park Geun-hye on corruption charges.

“I will be a president for all the people,” Mr Moon told his celebrating supporters at midnight in the capital, Seoul, ahead of the official results. Early exit polls showed him with a 41.4pc lead and he is expected to be sworn-in today.

Over 77pc of South Korea’s 42.4 million eligible voters cast their ballots, eager to fill a power vacuum that had left Seoul directionless during an escalating stand-off in recent weeks between Pyongyang and Washington. With South Korea on the frontline of any future military conflict, Mr Moon will immediately face domestic pressure to ease those tensions.

The son of North Korean refugees, the president-elect has been clear about his ambition to pursue negotiations with dictator Kim Jong-un, in a bid to persuade him to give up his nuclear weapon ambitions and bring lasting peace to the peninsula. His election will likely be welcomed by Pyongyang, which on Monday called for “a new era of unification”, urging the South to vote against conservatives, who were the “manic followers of confrontation”.

However, Mr Moon faces a possible early conflict with the US, his strongest strategic ally, over the controversial early deployment of THAAD, an American missile defence system, on a golf course in the south of the country during the election campaign. Mr Moon expressed his regret at the move, urging the US to delay until a new president was elected.

China has imposed unofficial economic sanctions on Seoul in protest, and South Koreans are bitterly divided. The new leader must also address a sluggish economy, high youth unemployment, and deep public disillusionment with political and business elites over a corruption scandal that will force former president Park to face a criminal trial later this month.

“When [people] actually vote, it’s going to be more about youth unemployment and economic issues,” said Katherine Moon, a Korea analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, ahead of the poll.

After voting, Park Hye-soo, a 20-year-old student, agreed. “There are a great number of students in Korea who cannot attend university because the tuition is so high. I voted for the candidate I believe is most considerate to the needs of ordinary people,” she said.

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