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2017 South Korean Elections: What it Means for the State

Sadbh O’Reilly

On the 9th of May 2017, South Korea’s 19th presidential election took place, following the highly unusual circumstances of the impeachment of the former president, Park Guen-hye.


Park Guen-hye was the first president of South Korea to be removed from office, shortening the usual five-year term by 11 months. She was accused of extorting money for big firms and attempting to conceal her actions. Additionally, she had disclosed confidential state secrets to her friend, Choi Soon-sil, who had not been granted security clearance, but had allegedly been involved in influencing policy, including South Korea’s approach to the North Korean nuclear weapons programme. Park and Choi siphoned donations from corporations (also known as chaebol) into organisations managed by Choi. Under these revelations Park was deemed unfit to uphold the constitution, with 3/4 of South Koreans in favour of the impeachment.

Moon Jae-in, a veteran liberal politician and former human rights lawyer, secured the victory for the Democratic United Party. He was an early favourite, with approval ratings at approximately 32%, and eventually won with 41.1% of the vote. What is significant about this election result is that Moon represents a turn from the conservative regime that has ruled South Korea for the last ten years. Park’s supporters were generally from an older demographic—aged 50 years and above—and her approach was reminiscent of an outdated era that favoured military rule and conservative social policy. On the campaign trail, Moon championed more open dialogue with North Korea and repairing South Korea’s relationship with China, while simultaneously maintaining its longstanding alliance with the US.


Aside from dissatisfaction surrounding domestic corruption, one of the most contentious issues Moon will face is regarding his proposed engagement with North Korea. The two Koreas have been interlocked in hostility for decades and successive presidencies have attempted to employ a variety of measures to ease tensions. The approach employed by Park was relatively hard-line, imposing tough sanctions against North Korea, and has been considered to have heightened tensions between the two Koreas. South Koreans are displeased with the pace of negotiations with their northern neighbours, as well as the interference on the Korean peninsula by outside powers. Moon campaigned for warmer engagement with Pyongyang and intends to regain authority in dealing with North Korea through “conditional dialogue”. An example of this approach is his campaign promise to reopen and expand the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint venture between the two Koreas that aims to “spread the market economy system to the North”. However, Moon must ensure that the revenue garnered by this “small form of unification” does not contribute to the North Korean nuclear program. In this delicate operation of cooperation, constructive engagement is paramount to de-escalate military tensions. This may include confidence-building measures, such as reducing humanitarian aid and travel restrictions.

The strength of his method will be tested in light of North Korea’s latest nuclear weapons tests. Pyongyang maintains that a nuclear deterrent is necessary for its security, and on the 4th of July, North Korea launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile in the direction of Japan. This will plunge South Korea and the US into urgent deliberation as they wrestle with the perceived implications of North Korea’s expanding offensive arsenal.

Careful cooperation and coordination between the US and South Korea is critical to managing the nuclear-missile threat that North Korea presents. However, the unpredictable and ever-changing nature of Trump’s approach to foreign affairs may perplex Pyongyang and complicate negotiations. The divergent approaches of the leaders could lead to clashes in their policy regarding North Korea. Moon campaigned on increased dialogue and engagement with Pyongyang and intends to play a greater role in the alliance and negotiations with North Korea. On the other hand, Trump’s mercurial stance encourages uncertainty and runs the risk of miscalculation by the parties involved. He has wavered between naming North Korea a “menace”—during the recent meeting between Moon and Trump in June 2017—to being “honored” to meet Kim Jong-Un”. A delicate and strategic method is necessary to avoid emboldening or alarming North Korea, both of which could have disastrous consequences.

North Korea’s increasingly unpredictable and aggressive temperament is likely to foreground and magnify tensions within the region. Despite former President Kim Jong-il declaring in 2000 that the missiles were just being used to force the US into communications, North Korea claimed of its most recent missile launch that it could “reach anywhere in the world”. The ongoing nuclear tests, coupled with these antagonistic remarks, are likely to lead to friction between the US and North Korea, and tenser negotiations between the US and South Korea as they clash over how to approach the threat.


The Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defence (THAAD) system was established by the former presidents of both the US and South Korea in response to North Korea’s missile system. Despite Moon’s campaign promises to reconsider THAAD, South Korea’s foreign minister recently recommitted to the defence system to honour the alliance. However, THAAD is creating tension within the region, as China is concerned about its ability to reach the mainland and endanger Chinese citizens. Since Park commissioned the missile defence system, relations with China have deteriorated; China has retaliated to its installation with reduced tourist flows and a boycott of South Korean products on the mainland. During his presidential campaign, one of the promises that Moon Jae-in gave was to reconsider the THAAD system to repair relations with China. This is encompassed in his revised approach towards North Korea, which includes warmer engagement and talks, and a greater South Korean role in negotiations. However, Moon may renege on this promise, following the launch of North Korean missiles in early July.

Moon’s greatest challenge will be finding the balance between maintaining the alliance with the US without antagonising North Korea, and obtaining a greater role for South Korea in negotiations concerning tensions on the Korean peninsula. This may prove difficult for him—the new American president remains provocative, and North Korea grows increasingly antagonistic.

Sadbh O’Reilly is in her final year at the University of Melbourne, studying Psychology, Politics and International Studies and French.

(Image Source: Quartz 2017).



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