Can South Korea's Moon heal the public distrust that fueled his victory?

To many abroad, the presidential election boiled down to two words: North Korea. But at home, where his predecessor's impeachment fed suspicions of widespread corruption, voters are looking to Moon to restore a sense of transparency and opportunity.

Hong Hae-in/Yonhap/AP
South Korea's new President Moon Jae-in waves from a car after his inauguration ceremony in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, May 10, 2017. Moon said Wednesday he was open to visiting rival North Korea under the right conditions to talk about Pyongyang's aggressive pursuit of nuclear-tipped missiles.

South Korea's new president, Moon Jae-in, was sworn into office Wednesday amid a gathering storm of foreign policy challenges: taming the Kim regime's nuclear program while forging new cooperation with Pyongyang; maintaining relations with the United States without antagonizing China. Nothing short of peace in East Asia is on the line.

But while the world remains fixated on North Korea, Mr. Moon faces a more fundamental challenge on the domestic front: rebuilding the public’s trust in government.

Moon's election was the culmination of a massive political upheaval, the likes of which haven’t been seen in South Korea in 30 years. Weeks of peaceful protests over a far-reaching corruption scandal led to the impeachment and eventual arrest of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye – a crisis that strengthened many voters' impression that the nation’s elite lived by a different set of rules, with money and connections the real pathways to success.

Such realizations were especially hard to swallow for young people who felt as if they were doing everything they could to get ahead in South Korea’s tepid economy. Their discontent paved the way for Moon's landslide victory this week, beating his nearest rival by 17 percentage points. 

“His election is the start, not the end,” says Lee Mi-hee, a 24-year-old Moon supporter who works as a project manager at a mobile app company in Seoul. Watching the live election results over a plate of chicken wings with two of her friends on Tuesday night, Ms. Lee struck a determined tone as it became clear Moon would win. “There is still so much wrong with Korean politics that needs to be fixed. It’ll be hard, but we have to do it.”

Moon, a former human rights lawyer, is well positioned to tap into the wave of public disillusionment with South Korea’s political status quo. He’s the country’s first liberal president in nine years and a longtime rival of Ms. Park, having lost to her in the 2012 elections by a million votes. It’s no small irony that Moon, who was jailed in the 1970s for protesting her father’s dictatorial rule, has taken over the presidency while Park awaits trial inside a 114-square-foot cell.

A hunger for change

The scandal that led her to that cell – and a potential life sentence – exposed a level of corruption many South Koreans had long suspected but had difficulty proving. The $52 million in bribes Park is accused of collecting or demanding from businesses is only the most egregious example. With distrust in the political system still running high, much of Moon’s success as president will rest on his ability to enact meaningful reforms and show that government is capable of working for everyone.

“People are still hungry for change,” says Kim Hyung-geun, secretary general of Political Power Plant, a political outreach organization based in Seoul. South Koreans’ excitement was evident at the polls on Tuesday: voter turnout was 77.2 percent, the highest in 20 years. “Many want to see the whole system transformed,” Mr. Kim says.

The challenges ahead for South Korea are steep. Sluggish economic growth and a youth unemployment rate that reached 8.2 percent last year, its highest level since 1999, have fueled deep-seated fears about the country’s future. For young people, those fears were compounded by the accusation that Choi Soon-sil, Park’s longtime confidante at the center of the scandal, had pressured a prestigious women’s university to admit her daughter. The episode gave the youngest generation of voters all the more reason to feel as if the system was rigged against them.

Woo Suk-hoon, an economist who has studied the youth job crisis, says it will be up to Moon to show them otherwise. “What happened with Choi’s daughter made young people want to explode,” says Dr. Woo. The upside is that the scandal led thousands of them to get involved in politics for the first time. They became a mainstay of the “Candlelight Revolution” leading up to Park's ouster – so called for the candles protesters waved in the streets – and provided a major boost to Moon’s campaign.

“President Park was just the tip of the iceberg,” says Chong So-young, a graphic design student at Seoul National University and member of Femidangdang, a student-led feminist group that rose to prominence during the demonstrations. “Her impeachment was a good first step, but it’s important to keep the momentum going.”

In recognition of young people’s concerns, Moon has promised to create 810,000 jobs in the public sector and raise taxes on the wealthy. He has also vowed to create 500,000 jobs in the private sector by reducing work hours. Woo says Moon is unlikely to pursue immediate, radical changes as he works to protect a fragile recovery in Asia's fourth-largest economy.

Reforms won't be easy

Yet radical change is what many South Koreans are calling for when it comes to reforming the family-controlled conglomerates, known as chaebol, that dominate the country’s economy and wield vast political power. Public distrust of them hit a new high earlier this year with the arrest and indictment of Lee Jae-yong, the de facto leader of Samsung, South Korea’s largest business empire, on suspicion that he bribed Park in exchange for business favors. Moon has vowed to break the corrupt ties between government officials and business leaders by increasing transparency and implementing corporate governance reforms.

Reforms of any kind won’t be easy. His Democratic Party is the largest force in the 299-seat legislature but holds only 120 seats, far from the 180 seats needed to pass legislation without buy-in from other parties. And if the economy slows, lawmakers may fear that constraining the chaebol would further endanger growth.

All of this has led Park Jin, a political activist who helped organize the anti-Park demonstrations, to be skeptical of whether Moon will be able to deliver the kind of sweeping reforms that she considers long overdue. “It’s time for civil society to fight on Moon’s side,” Ms. Park says. “We have to drive him to make changes because these problems are difficult and won’t be solved immediately.”

So how long are South Koreans willing to wait?

Nam Ji-soo, a 21-year-old graphic design student at Hongik University in Seoul, has little patience and sees few reasons for optimism. “I’m not expecting many changes under Moon,” she says from behind the counter of a cafe in the trendy neighborhood of Hongdae. Ms. Nam works at the cafe 15 hours a week, one of two part-time jobs she has to save money to study in the US or Europe. She says she is less worried about navigating South Korea’s hyper-competitive job market than many of her friends, but that she still wants to improve her skills by studying abroad. “My friends are worried about finding work after they graduate,” she says. “The election doesn’t change that.”

But then there are South Koreans like Ms. Lee, those whom Moon has given a new sense of hope about the future. “After the Park scandal, I lost a lot of faith in government,” she says. “I think Moon can bring it back.”

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