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Moon Jae-in Declares Victory in South Korea Presidential Election
By CHOE SANG-HUN
SEOUL, South Korea — Moon Jae-in, a human rights lawyer who favors
dialogue with North Korea, declared victory in the South Korean
presidential election on Tuesday, after his rivals appeared to concede
His victory would return the liberals to power after nearly a decade in
the political wilderness and set up a potential rift with the United
States over the North’s nuclear weapons program.
“I will be a president for all the people,” Mr. Moon said in a
nationally televised speech before a group of cheering supporters
gathered in central Seoul, the capital. He said he would work with
political rivals to create a country where “justice rules and common
Mr. Moon was leading in the vote-counting by a comfortable margin around
midnight local time, though official results were not expected until
well into Wednesday.
The vote caps a remarkable national drama in which a corruption scandal,
mass protests and impeachment forced a South Korean president from
office for the first time in almost 60 years, leaving the conservative
establishment in disarray and its former leader in jail.
Mr. Moon, 64, a son of North Korean refugees, faces the challenge of
enacting changes to limit the power of big business and address the
abuses uncovered in his predecessor’s downfall, while balancing
relations with the United States and China and following through on his
promise of a new approach to North Korea.
Mr. Moon’s victory would scramble the geopolitics of the standoff over
North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Even as it is urging the world to step up
pressure on Pyongyang, the Trump administration now faces the prospect
of a key ally — one with the most at stake in any conflict with the
North — breaking ranks and adopting a more conciliatory approach.
Mr. Moon has argued that Washington’s reliance on sanctions and “maximum
pressure” has been ineffective and that it is time to give engagement
and dialogue with the North another chance, an approach favored by
China. He has also called for a review of the Pentagon’s deployment of
an antimissile defense system in South Korea that the Chinese government
Mr. Moon’s position on North Korea is a sharp departure from that of his
two immediate predecessors, conservatives who tended to view anything
less than strict enforcement of sanctions against the North as
While he condemned “the ruthless dictatorial regime of North Korea”
during his campaign, Mr. Moon also argued that South Korea must “embrace
the North Korean people to achieve peaceful reunification one day.”
“To do that, we must recognize Kim Jong-un as their ruler and as our
dialogue partner,” he said. “The goal of sanctions must be to bring
North Korea back to the negotiating table.”
David Straub, a former director of Korean affairs at the State
Department and a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, a think tank
near Seoul, warned of “serious policy differences between the U.S. and
South Korean presidents” over North Korea and related issues. He added
that they could lead to “significantly increased popular dissatisfaction
with the United States in South Korea.”
China, on the other hand, is likely to welcome Mr. Moon’s election,
which may make it easier for it to deflect pressure from the United
States to get tough on North Korea and strengthen its argument that
Washington must address the North’s concerns about security.
Some analysts suggest Mr. Moon’s victory would lower the temperature of
the North Korean standoff, prompting Washington and Pyongyang to pause
and assess the effect of the new government in Seoul on their policies.
Satellite images indicate the North has been getting ready to conduct a
sixth nuclear test, and the Trump administration has engaged in a heated
campaign of implied threats and military posturing to stop it.
Mr. Moon’s view of North Korea echoes the approach of the two liberal
presidents who held power from 1998 to 2008 and pursued a so-called
sunshine policy toward the North that included diplomatic talks, family
reunions and joint economic projects, such as the Kaesong industrial
park in North Korea, near the demilitarized zone.
But that era was punctuated by the North’s first nuclear test, conducted
in 2006, and much has changed on the Korean Peninsula since.
With four more tests under its belt, each more powerful than the last,
and a rapidly advancing ballistic missile program, North Korea poses a
greater threat to the South and appears to be closing in on nuclear arms
capable of striking the United States. Mr. Moon also faces a mercurial
adversary in Kim Jong-un, 33, who took power in Pyongyang after the
death of his father in late 2011.
Critics say any attempt by Mr. Moon to revive the sunshine policy —
perhaps by reopening Kaesong, which his disgraced predecessor, Park
Geun-hye, shut down last year — would give North Korea a lifeline it
could use to reduce its economic dependence on China, weakening
Beijing’s leverage over it and strengthening Mr. Kim’s hand.
The American missile defense system, known as Terminal High Altitude
Area Defense, or Thaad, presents another test for Mr. Moon. It went into
operation last week, and Mr. Moon has complained that its deployment was
rushed to present him with a fait accompli. But if he tries to undo it,
he could strain the alliance with Washington while leaving the
impression of bowing to Chinese pressure.
That could be politically fatal in South Korea, where the public, across
the political spectrum, is wary of the country looking “obsequious”
toward big powers. Many South Koreans complained that the United States
had foisted Thaad on their nation, but they also fumed about retaliatory
economic measures taken by China in response to its deployment.
Acknowledging the complexity of the challenges he faces, Mr. Moon has
been careful to say that when he promised to review the Thaad
deployment, he did not necessarily mean he would reverse it.
And while he has said South Korea must “learn to say no” to Washington,
he has emphasized that any diplomatic overture toward North Korea will
be grounded in the South’s alliance with the United States. He has also
often expressed gratitude to the United States for protecting the South
from Communism and supporting its transformation into a prosperous
Mr. Moon’s parents fled Communist rule during the Korean War and were
among tens of thousands evacuated from the North Korean port of Hungnam
by retreating American Navy vessels in the winter of 1950. They often
told him about the Christmas sweets that American troops handed out to
those packed into the ships during the journey.
Mr. Moon was born in January 1953, after his parents had resettled in a
refugee camp on an island off the southern coast of South Korea. His
father was a handyman, and his mother peddled eggs, coal briquettes and
black-market American relief goods.
Asked by the daily Dong-A Ilbo what he would do with a crystal ball, Mr.
Moon said last month that he would show his 90-year-old mother what her
North Korean hometown looked like now and how her relatives there were
faring. “If Korea reunifies, the first thing I would do is to take my
mother’s hand and visit her hometown,” he said. “Perhaps, I could retire
there as a lawyer.”
In the 1980s, Mr. Moon defended student and labor activists persecuted
under military rule and forged a lifelong friendship with a fellow
lawyer, Roh Moo-hyun. When Mr. Roh was elected president in 2002,
declaring that he would be the first South Korean president not to
“kowtow to the Americans,” Mr. Moon served as his chief of staff.
Many conservatives’ misgivings about Mr. Moon stem from his association
with Mr. Roh. But some former American officials who dealt with the Roh
government remember Mr. Moon as more practical and flexible than other
officials. In his memoir, Mr. Moon defended Mr. Roh’s decision to sign a
trade agreement with the United States and dispatch troops to Iraq over
the protests of Mr. Roh’s liberal political base.
Mr. Roh completed his five-year term in 2008 and committed suicide the
next year as prosecutors investigated corruption allegations against his
“It was the most painful day in my life,” Mr. Moon wrote in his memoir,
describing his friend’s death as “tantamount to a political murder” and
placing the blame for it on a political vendetta by a new conservative
government that wanted to discredit him.
Mr. Moon entered the 2012 presidential race vowing to finish Mr. Roh’s
work by fighting corruption, the influence of the country’s family-owned
conglomerates, and what he called “politically motivated prosecutors” —
and by seeking peace with North Korea.
But he narrowly lost to Ms. Park, the daughter of the South Korean
military strongman Park Chung-hee, and spent the next four years as a
leader of the opposition.
In a recent interview, Mr. Moon recalled how he visited Mr. Roh’s
predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and architect
of the sunshine policy, shortly before Mr. Kim died in 2009.
Mr. Kim was so feeble by then that he had to be fed by his wife, and he
was heartbroken. He had devoted much of his career to building trust
with North Korea through humanitarian and economic aid, and the
conservatives in power were dismantling that legacy and embracing
sanctions against the North.
“President Kim said he could not believe his eyes,” Mr. Moon recalled.
“In what I thought was his dying wish, he asked us to take the
Jane Perlez contributed reporting from Beijing.
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