SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea’s liberal leader Moon Jae-in will take the oath of office as president on Wednesday, tasked with navigating the country out of rising geopolitical tensions over North Korea’s nuclear programme and the risk of a rift with the United States.
Moon, 64, is expected to announce major cabinet and presidential staff appointments as early as Wednesday to swiftly end a power vacuum left by the March ouster of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, in a corruption scandal. Moon was expected to forgo an elaborate inauguration ceremony.
Final results show Moon winning a decisive victory with the highest turnout in 20 years despite drizzly weather in South Korea. Moon won 41.1 percent of the votes compared with 24 percent for conservative candidate Hong Joon-pyo and 21.4 percent for centrist candidate Ahn Cheol-soo.
The National Election Commission confirmed Moon’s win at 8.09 a.m. on Wednesday (2309 GMT Tuesday), officially starting Moon’s presidency.
As president, Moon must find a way to coax an increasingly belligerent North Korea to dial back on its nuclear and missile threats while defusing a potential trade conflict with the United States.
Moon’s advocacy of engagement with North Korea contrasts with the approach adopted by the United States, South Korea’s main ally, which is seeking to step up pressure on Pyongyang through further isolation and sanctions.
The White House nevertheless quickly congratulated Moon, saying it looked forward to working with him to strengthen the longstanding U.S.-South Korea alliance.
Moon’s administration also needs to figure out how to ease tensions with China stemming from the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile defence system in the South Korea to guard against the threat of a North Korean missile strike.
Challenges include mending a deeply divided electorate and a society badly bruised by the corruption scandal.
“I will make a just, united country,” Moon told a crowd gathered just before midnight to see the former human rights lawyer who entered politics to lead a party just five years ago.
“I will be a president who also serves all the people who did not support me.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer congratulated Moon and said in a statement: “We look forward to working with President-elect Moon to continue to strengthen the alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea.”
MINORITY IN PARLIAMENT
Moon faces a divided parliament in which his own Democratic Party lacks a majority. To push through major initiatives, including creating 500,000 jobs annually and reforming the country’s powerful family-run conglomerates, he will need to forge partnerships with some of the parties and politicians he fought fiercely on his path to the presidency.
Moon’s comfortable margin of victory belies a deep ideological and generational divide in the country of 51 million people.
Data from an exit poll conducted by the country’s top three television networks showed that while Moon won the majority of votes cast by those under the age of 50, rival Hong found strong support from those in their 60s and 70s, who tend to be more conservative.
The election has been closely watched by allies and neighbours, with North Korea believed to be gearing up for its sixth nuclear test and vowing to test an intercontinental ballistic missile. Moon is expected to try to engage Pyongyang with dialogue and aid, breaking from his predecessor’s hardline policies.
Moon’s election could add volatility to relations with Washington, given his questioning of the deployment of the U.S. military’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, but is not expected to significantly change the alliance, a U.S. official said.
“It remains a concern that the left of center, left-wing party in South Korea is going to do well,” the official told Reuters, asking not to be named. “But they are going to have to do some coalition building, so I am not sure he’s going be able to have an unadulterated anti-alliance, anti-THAAD stance.”
Analysts say Moon will need to act quickly in naming key security and foreign policy aides and ministers in order to ease geopolitical tensions.
Daniel Russel, Washington’s former top diplomat for Asia, told Reuters the differences between and Moon and Trump would mean inevitable friction, but “don’t portend a crisis or failure” for relations.
“The important thing is the degree to which he (Moon) will consult, communicate and collaborate with the United States. Will he be a good alliance partner?” said Russel, now diplomat in residence at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
“Do you dial up the pressure until North Korea feels compelled to come to the table? Or do you dial down the pressure and turn on the mood music and light some candles until North Korea gets in the mood to talk. That’s going to have to be sorted out.”
At home, concerning his campaign pledge to turn the presidential Blue House palace into a “rest space for the people” and work in a 19-storey government complex building in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul instead, a Moon spokesman told Yonhap on Wednesday he will work in the Blue House for the time being, and while advisors will discuss logistics no specific timing has been decided.
A Moon spokesman could not be reached to confirm.
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(Reporting by Se Young Lee, Ju-min Park, Cynthia Kim and Joyce Lee; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom in Washington, Hyunjoo Jin in Seoul; Editing by Jack Kim and James Dalgleish)
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