SEOUL, South Korea — Two major challengers in South Korea’s presidential election conceded defeat Tuesday, paving the way for liberal Moon Jae-in to claim victory in balloting that followed months of political turmoil caused by ousted President Park Geun-hye’s corruption scandal.
The concessions by conservative Hong Joon-pyo and centrist Ahn Cheol-soo came after exit polls forecast a Moon victory. That would end a decade of conservative rule in South Korea and set up a sharp departure from recent policy toward nuclear-armed North Korea.
“I will humbly accept the choice of the people,” Ahn said. “I lacked (the capability) to satisfy people’s ardent wish for change.”
The exit poll of about 89,000 voters at 330 polling stations, jointly commissioned by three major television stations and released just after polls closed, showed Moon receiving 41.4 percent of the vote.
Hong and Ahn were expected to garner 23.3 percent and 21.8 percent, respectively, according to the exit poll, which had a margin of error of 0.8 percentage points.
“I hope today will open the door for a new Republic of Korea,” Moon told jubilant party members after the release of the exit poll, in what sounded like an acceptance speech. “I will achieve reforms and national unity, the two missions that our people long for.”
Moon, the Democratic Party candidate, has called for engagement with North Korea, saying that the hard-line approach favored by conservative governments did nothing to prevent the North from expanding its nuclear bomb and missile programs and only reduced South Korea’s voice in international efforts to deal with its rival.
The winning candidate will be officially sworn in as South Korea’s new president after the election commission finishes the vote count and declares the winner Wednesday morning. This forgoes the usual two-month transition because Tuesday’s vote was a by-election to choose a successor to Park, whose term was to end in February 2018.
Following months of protests by millions and impeachment by lawmakers, Park was removed from office and arrested in March over corruption allegations. The new South Korean president will still serve out a full, single five-year term.
Moon was chief of staff for the last liberal president, the late Roh Moo-hyun, who sought closer ties with North Korea by setting up large-scale aid shipments to the North and by working on now-stalled joint economic projects.
Some of the key policies of Moon Jae-in
ENGAGEMENT WITH NORTH KOREA
A former aide of late liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, who sought rapprochement with North Korea, Moon has been critical of the hard-line stances that conservative governments in Seoul maintained against North Korea over the past decade.
Moon says the confrontational approach did nothing to prevent North Korea from expanding its arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles and only reduced Seoul’s voice in international efforts to deal with its rival.
He calls for sanctions and pressure against Pyongyang to be balanced with engagement efforts, and says he’s open to the idea of holding talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over the nuclear issue, which would mark a sharp departure from recent South Korean policy.
He also vows to reopen an industrial park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong that was jointly run by the two Koreas before the government of impeached South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who is in jail awaiting a corruption trial, closed it last year following a nuclear test and long-range rocket launch by the North.
RECONSIDERING U.S. ANTI-MISSILE SYSTEM
Moon has also shown a willingness to challenge the United States, a key ally of South Korea, saying that Seoul should reconsider its deployment of an advanced U.S. missile defense system to better cope with North Korean threats.
Moon says that the security benefits of THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, would be curtailed by worsened relations with China, whose help Washington and Seoul are trying to enlist to pressure Pyongyang into giving up its nuclear ambitions.
China, South Korea’s largest trade partner, has raised concerns that THAAD’s powerful radar could be used to peer deep into its territory and monitor its flights and missile launches. Seoul has raised suspicions that Beijing is retaliating against plans for THAAD by limited Chinese tour group visits to South Korea.
CURBING EXCESSES OF CHAEBOL
Succeeding Park, the country’s first female president, Moon has vowed to end a decades-long culture that brewed murky ties between politicians and businesses.
Moon promises to launch a powerful new anti-corruption body and also curb the excesses of “chaebol,” a privileged group of family-owned conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai, which have been criticized for bribing politicians for business favors and unfairly crushing smaller companies in competition.
Moon wants to strengthen the influence of minority shareholders in electing board members. He says this would prevent conglomerates from excessively transferring corporate wealth and management power to their founding families, who often enjoy imperious control over group businesses despite holding only small stakes in publicly listed companies. Moon also calls for stronger punishment for white-collar crimes committed by chaebol owners and government officials who take bribes from them.
The scandal involving Park has also led to the arrest of Lee Jae-yong, the billionaire scion of Samsung, who is suspected of bribing Park and one of her close confidantes in an effort to win government support for a 2015 merger between two Samsung affiliates. The deal allowed Lee to further promote a father-to-son transfer of wealth and management power at the group.
CREATING JOBS, STRENGTHENING WELFARE
To address a bleak job market for young people, Moon has pledged to spend $3.7 billion annually to create 810,000 public sector jobs over the next five years, including bureaucrats, social workers, teachers, police officers and firefighters. He promises stronger government support for small companies and startups, and to reduce South Korea’s notoriously long work hours to help boost job creation.
Moon has also vowed to raise the minimum wage to 10,000 won ($8.80) an hour from the current 6,470 won ($5.70) by 2020. He calls for stronger measures to prevent companies from discriminating against part-time or contract workers, who are becoming a larger part of the country’s workforce but often have to put up with lower wages and harsher work conditions.
His campaign pledges on welfare include strengthening payment for working parents during maternity and paternity leaves, establishing more state-run childcare facilities, and increasing pension payments for the elderly and health insurance coverage for Alzheimer’s and related disorders.