The new president could not differ more from his predecessor, but he faces familiar problems, reports David McNeill
‘March for the Beloved’ is the unofficial anthem of South Korean progressives, a cultural dividing line in the nation’s politics. Penned to commemorate the victims of the 1980 Gwangju massacre, when government paratroopers snuffed out an uprising in the south, it has been the soundtrack of the nation’s transformation since, from military dictatorship to rambunctious, flawed democracy.
As a veteran activist, Moon Jae-in, the country’s new president, would have belted the song out countless times, but rarely with the same emotional resonance as he did on May 18. That date was officially memorialised two decades ago to mark the Gwangju uprising and its hundreds of victims, but conservatives, many with roots in the old dictatorship, hate ‘March for the Beloved’, and have spent years trying to silence it.
One of Moon’s first acts was to sign an executive order making it the official song of the memorial for the uprising at the National Cemetery in Gwangju. He explained why in a speech to the record crowd of 10,000 people who turned up at the cemetery. ‘It isn’t just a song,’ he said. ‘It is the spirit of the May 18 democracy movement itself.’
That was another sign that Korean politics have been turned upside down after a decade of conservative rule. As a student, Moon did jail time in the mid-1970s, when the country was ruled by Park Chung-hee, and rode to power on the back of mass protests against the strongman’s daughter, Park Geun-hye. Moon took 13.4 million votes against the 7.8 million votes of conservative candidate Hong Jun-pyo, the biggest margin of victory in the country’s recent history. Park now wears prisoner’s badge No. 503 while her once bitter liberal opponent occupies her old seat in the presidential Blue House – quite a reversal of fortunes.
Moon’s victory was hardly a surprise. Koreans had grown weary of Park after four years of mismanaged rule, capped by a bizarre corruption scandal involving influence peddling and a cult leader. Even without the lurid headlines that scandal generated, however, Park was emblematic, for many, of a deeper malaise. The system that helped propel South Korea in a few generations from backwater to the world’s 11th largest economy is running out of steam. Unemployment and inequality are soaring, and the nation’s elites are remote and out of touch. Connections, not merit, seem to determine winners and losers.
Every modern presidential candidate, even Park, has pledged to tackle these problems and confront South Korea’s chaebols – family-owned conglomerates that dominate the economic and political landscape. Moon, as a member of the Democratic Party, has long threatened to curtail the ability of business dynasties to control the largest conglomerates through complex shareholdings that accelerate the transfer of corporate wealth to their own pockets. His nomination of Kim Sang-jo, dubbed the ‘chaebol sniper’, to chair the nation’s anti-trust watchdog at least suggests serious intent.
Yet there are real doubts about this mission. Moon’s liberal predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, also talked tough, but presided instead over an era of deregulation and workforce casualisation that helped the four biggest business clans – Samsung, LG, SK and Hyundai – grow stronger than ever. Today they account for about half of the country’s stock market value, according to Reuters. One disgraced corporate boss after another has been marched to prison, only to be quickly freed. Moon has promised to end presidential pardons: an early test will be the fate of Lee Jae-yong, the boss of Samsung, who was arrested in connection with the Park scandal.
More pressing than this looming showdown, however, is the existential threat of war with North Korea. Park’s final months in office coincided with a dramatic ramping up of tensions with Pyongyang, even by the standards of a region that often seems on the verge of catastrophe. Since taking office, Moon has tried to calm things down, pledging to send envoys to China and Washington and even – ‘under the right conditions’ – to visit Pyongyang. The aim is to revive the moribund ‘Sunshine Policy’ of his liberal predecessors, luring the North out of diplomatic isolation with trade and aid. Inevitably, perhaps, these proposals have been dubbed ‘Moonshine’.
Moon has also promised to review an American missile defence system on South Korean territory, hurriedly deployed during the dying days of the Park administration. China says the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system (THAAD) will shift the balance of regional military power in America’s favour, and has retaliated hard against Korean business interests.
Squeezed between the demands of its long-term military ally and its increasingly assertive and powerful neighbour, Seoul will have to tread carefully. ‘If you want to sanction North Korea, you need co-operation from China. That’s the reality of the landscape here,’ said Jong Kun Choi, a political scientist at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Moon has tried to mend fences since his victory by calling his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, offering to ‘negotiate sincerely’. But there has been no talk yet of shipping THAAD back to Lockheed Martin, the American company that built it. Instead, it may be used as leverage in talks with Washington and Beijing, perhaps in an attempt to persuade them back to six-nation talks on Pyongyang. ‘The THAAD decision was made very abruptly without considering our relationship with China, or our national interests,’ said Choi. ‘President [Donald] Trump is always talking about America first. President Moon is emphasising that peace in Korea comes first.’
It is clear that Moon and his constituency are alarmed by what they see as Trump’s reckless military posturing, and the prospect, however remote, that he might take unilateral action. The South, after all, has by far the most to lose if hot war breaks out – its densely crowded capital is within reach of the North’s conventional artillery. Moon expressed this sentiment in April, when he said that Seoul had to ‘take the lead’ in dealing with Pyongyang rather than letting America and China dictate the pace. Washington must learn, say Moon insiders, that it cannot go it alone on the Korean Peninsula.
Yet, like Roh, whom he served as chief of staff, Moon has quickly dispelled any illusions among his more radical supporters that he might dilute or even dissolve the US alliance, which ‘is and will always be the foundation of our diplomacy and national security’, he told Trump in their first phone call. The South hosts 28,500 US troops, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, and they are ‘more important than ever,’ said Moon, ‘given the rising uncertainty surrounding the Korean Peninsula’.
The likelihood, then, is that the Seoul government will adhere to UN-led sanctions against its Stalinist neighbour, and reluctantly work with Trump while trying to open up new channels of dialogue with the isolated regime of Kim Jong-un. Some expect Moon to dangle the prospect of soft loans and the reopening of the joint Kaesong industrial complex, a once-thriving symbol of peaceful engagement – though he will face opposition among conservatives. And he will press China to use its influence on Kim to abandon plans to test a sixth nuclear device.
Ultimately, the new president will be judged by voters not on foreign policy, but on how he tackles growing social problems, including record youth unemployment, one of the world’s highest suicide rates and some of the worst poverty levels among the elderly in the OECD. It’s all a tall order even for a politician as skilled and experienced as Moon. His years of opposition singing songs of defiance against a hated authoritarian regime may turn out to have been the easy part.