Newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Wednesday he is willing to visit North Korea, and to negotiate with China and the United States over the controversial deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in South Korea.
Moon took the official oath of office during a ceremony in Seoul following Tuesday's election victory.
South Korea's election commission said Moon won 41 percent of the vote, beating out conservative Hong Joon-pyo, who finished at 24 percent, and centrist Ahn Cheol-soo, who got 21 percent.
"I will be president for all South Koreans," the Liberal Democratic Party of Korea candidate told cheering supporters in Seoul, after his two closest rivals conceded defeat.
Voter turnout was historically high at 77 percent following a tumultuous political period in which revelations of ex-President Park Geun-hye's alleged a multi-million dollar influence peddling scheme led to weeks of massive public protests that pressured the National Assembly to force her removal from office and call for a new election.
Strong public anger directed at Park over the corruption scandal seemed to energize the liberal base while depressing support for conservative candidates.
Hwang Eui-soon, who attended the past rallies demanding Park’s ouster, said Moon’s support for their cause and calls for anti-corruption reforms influenced him to vote for the Democratic Party candidate.
“I didn't know at that time, but how Mr. Moon played a role as a leader during the protests was very impressive,” said Hwang after voting at the Hongeun-dong polling station in the North of Seoul.
Moon’s victory with just 40 percent of the vote also reflects deep ideological divisions in South Korea. In the South Korean election system the candidate who gains the most votes is declared the winner, even if that total is less than a majority of the electorate.
His Democratic Party holds 119 seats in the 299 member National Assembly. The South Korean parliament usually has 300 members but Ahn Cheol-soo dropped out to run for president and has not yet been replaced. The two main conservative parties hold 126 seats. While Moon does not have a super majority in the legislature, he should be able to implement his polices with support from other liberal leaning parties.
Many of Moon’s supporters said they like his domestic policy agenda to increase government spending for jobs and education. But some are ambivalent about his pro-engagement polices on North Korea that his conservative opponents have labeled as weak on national security.
“[Some people] said [candidate Moon] is pro-North, but I think we don't need to worry about it,” said Kim Eun-hee after she voted for Moon in Seoul.
Despite the impeachment scandal many older voters like Lee Bong-ho still supported the conservative parties due to their strong national security positions that emphasize sanctions, military deterrence and support for the U.S. alliance to restrain the North Korean nuclear threat.
“I've been supporting conservatives, because I consider stability [as a priority]. Looking back at previous administrations, conservatives secured stability,” said Lee.
Moon advocates a two-track policy on North Korea that promotes dialogue while maintaining pressure and sanctions to encourage change. But many liken his approach to the Sunshine Policy Of Engagement initiated in the early 2000s by late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. That attempt to build inter-Korean trust through assistance and cooperative projects eventually ended in the face of the North’s refusal to suspend its nuclear programs and its continued military provocations.
Moon ran against the conservative Park in 2012 presidential election but narrowly lost in part because she was seen as stronger on national security.
During this presidential campaign Moon criticized the conservative punitive approach toward North Korea for not only failing to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development, but for also allowing it to accelerate under their watch with increased ballistic missile and nuclear tests.
Moon said on Tuesday that the next South Korean president should take on a more active diplomatic role in working with both the United States and China to bring North Korea to international talks to resolve the nuclear standoff.
The new president will have to deal with erupting diplomatic crises with U.S. President Donald Trump’s $1 billion dollar demand for the THAAD missile defense system being deployed on the Korean Peninsula, and with China’s economic retaliation against South Korea, limiting tourism and imports, for supporting THAAD that Beijing sees as a threatening increase of the U.S. military presence in the region.
Youmi Kim contributed to this report.