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Moon Jae-in wins Korea’s first snap presidential election

May 10,2017
이미지뷰
President-elect Moon Jae-in celebrates his victory with Democratic Party members after delivering a speech to supporters at Sejongno Park in Jongno District, central Seoul, early Wednesday. [YONHAP]
Moon Jae-in, the nominee from the liberal Democratic Party, was elected Korea’s 19th president on Tuesday in what has been seen as an indictment of the country’s conservative establishment.

Moon’s victory in the snap election, which follows the first removal of a democratically elected president, was confirmed by the JoongAng Ilbo at 1:25 a.m. Wednesday morning when 67.15 percent of all votes had been counted.

Moon won 39.65 percent of the votes counted thus far. Runner-up Hong Joon-pyo, the candidate from the conservative Liberty Korea Party, trailed with 25.99 percent. People’s Party candidate Ahn Cheol-soo came in third with 21.37 percent, followed by Bareun Party nominee Yoo Seong-min and Justice Party contender Sim Sang-jeung with 6.56 and 5.86 percent each.

While about a quarter of all votes cast were yet to be counted as of press time, Moon’s wide gap ahead of his closest rivals was enough for him to declare victory. The liberal candidate led in every region of the country save for the two Gyeongsang provinces and Daegu, considered a traditional stronghold of the conservative Liberty Korea Party (LKP).

In a sign of confidence in his victory, Moon delivered a speech to his supporters gathered at Sejongno Park in central Seoul at around 11:45 p.m. Tuesday. The presumptive president-elect pledged to be a leader for national unity and serve all the people regardless of whom they had voted for in the election.

“Starting tomorrow, I will become a president of all the people,” Moon said before an enthusiastic crowd that continually chanted his name. “I will serve all Koreans, including those who voted and did not vote for me, to be a president of unity. I will make a country that serves justice and the rule of law and where the people’s will triumphs.”

With Moon, a former human rights lawyer who fought military dictatorship in the 1980s, as president, Korea will likely see a leader who stands in sharp contrast to the two previous presidents, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, who backed conservative policies, especially regarding North Korea.

On the campaign trail, Moon stressed he would try to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table in an attempt to dissuade the reclusive country from furthering its nuclear program. He emphasized resuming dialogue with the Kim Jong-un regime as a way to ease growing tension on the peninsula.

Such a stance contrasts the North Korea policies of Lee and Park, who stood firm on the condition that Pyongyang give up its nuclear ambitions before resuming talks or inter-Korean cooperation.

Moon, 64, was narrowly defeated by Park in the 2012 election. Then, as now, he promoted a series of liberal policies that included greater engagement with North Korea and reform of South Korea’s powerful chaebol, or family-run conglomerates. He also pledged to overhaul the country’s criminal justice system and amend the constitution to introduce a new governing system that would reduce the power of the president.

Because this year’s election came early to fill the vacancy created by Park’s removal from office, the five-year tenure of the new president will begin as soon as the National Election Commission finalizes the winner this morning. Moon won’t have time to form a transition committee and will immediately take control of the military.

His first official event as president is a scheduled visit to the National Cemetery in Seoul this morning. He will then be sworn into office at the National Assembly and head to the Blue House, the official residence of the Korean president.

Tuesday’s election was a landmark in the country’s political history, taking place after Park’s presidency was terminated in March through an impeachment process in the aftermath of a massive abuse of power and corruption scandal. Throughout the two-month campaign that followed, almost all the candidates pledged to end or combat decades of cozy relations between the government and big business.

Moon was born during the Korean War on Jan. 24, 1953, to parents who had fled from North Korea to the South in December 1950. They were among tens of thousands of refugees who boarded U.S. military ships in an evacuation that is now famously known as the Hungnam evacuation. Whenever his critics accused him of being sympathetic to the North, Moon would often cite his family’s story to refute the claims.

Moon grew up in abject poverty, but he believes the poverty helped him become a more independent and responsible person. “I consider poverty at the time a gift,” he wrote in his 2011 memoir “Destiny.” “My principle that money is not the most important thing stems from lessons I learned during my youth.”

In 1972, Moon entered Kyung Hee University on a full scholarship to study law. He found his cause among student activists fighting the military rule of Park Chung Hee, the father of Park Geun-hye. He was arrested in 1975 for protesting against the Park government and forcibly called to serve in the army after his release.

He was assigned to the Special Forces unit upon completing boot camp, and on the campaign trail, Moon often showed pictures of himself in Special Forces gear to dispel suspicion that he might be too weak on matters of national security.

Moon passed the bar exam in 1980 and hoped to pursue a legal career as a judge but failed the vetting process because of his student activist career. At the time, the country was still ruled by a military strongman, this time Chun Doo Hwan.

He returned to his hometown of Busan to partner with Roh Moo-hyun, who would later become Korea’s 16th president, and worked as a human rights lawyer. He soon found himself at the center of street protests against the Chun government, fighting shoulder to shoulder with Roh.

As Roh’s partner, Moon defended labor activists and pro-democracy activists in the early 1980s.

Fast forward to 2003, he entered a second chapter in his partnership with Roh as senior presidential secretary for civil affairs. Moon then served as Roh’s chief of staff in the waning years of his presidency.

Just over a year after Roh returned home to Bongha Village in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang, after serving out his term, Roh was embroiled in a bribery scandal implicating his former aides and family members.

The former president committed suicide 24 days after being questioned by prosecutors. The composed manner in which Moon took care of Roh’s funeral process earned him the nickname “Roh’s Last Standing Chief of Staff.”

In the 2012 presidential race, Moon ran as the unified candidate for the progressive bloc. Following a hard-fought race, he lost to Park by a margin of 3.5 percent.

Moon later said he regretted not being better prepared. Four years later, this time better equipped, the former human rights lawyer and former Special Forces solider won the election, 15 years after his lifetime partner Roh did.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]