SEOUL – Five weeks from South Korea’s election, it’s down to a three-horse race.
Park Geun-hye’s unprecedented ouster last month triggered a special election set for May 9. Late Monday, front-runner Moon Jae-in was confirmed as the candidate for the left-leaning Democratic Party of Korea, and Ahn Cheol-soo has all but sealed the nomination for his center-left People’s Party. Hong Joon-pyo will represent Park’s right-wing Liberty Korea Party.
Moon and Ahn will be trying to end nine years of conservative rule, while Hong will need to overcome the public anger that sent millions into the streets to protest against Park. Whoever wins faces a slew of challenges: Stagnating economic growth, North Korean nuclear threats, Chinese retaliation over the deployment of a U.S. missile-defense system, and reforming the family-run conglomerates, or “chaebol,” that contributed to Park’s downfall.
Below is a brief introduction to the leading contenders and their policies, along with their latest approval ratings in a Gallup Korea poll released Friday before Moon secured his party’s nomination.
Moon Jae-in (31%)
The 64-year-old is the former chief of the Democratic Party of Korea, which has the most seats in the National Assembly. He’s pledging to clean up what he calls “deep-rooted evil” in society following Park’s removal from office and subsequent arrest on suspicion of bribery and abuse of power. Moon, the runner-up to Park in 2012, promises to raise disposable incomes and take action to protect smaller enterprises against the chaebol. Even so, he’s said that reform of the conglomerates should be done in a way that doesn’t hurt their bottom line.
Moon is from a North Korea-rooted family that settled in the south during the Korean War. He has favored a softer line on Kim Jong Un’s regime than Park and her predecessor, even as it persists with its nuclear ambitions. The former lawyer has advocated a two-step approach to unify the peninsula, first through economic and then political integration. He wants a review of the decision to allow the U.S. to deploy the terminal high altitude area defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea. While he has urged dialogue with North Korea, he also sees the need for sanctions to persist.
Although he’s still the front-runner, Moon’s popularity has stagnated in recent weeks. Some conservative politicians have accused him of being aligned with the Kim regime — a claim he rejects, citing his background as a special forces veteran who underwent the toughest course in the nation’s mandatory military service to defend it against North Korea.
Ahn Cheol-soo (19%)
The 55-year-old former doctor-turned-software tycoon is the founder and ex-leader of the People’s Party, which has the third-most members in the National Assembly. He considered a run against Park in the 2012 presidential race, but opted to support Moon. In 2016, he resigned as the party’s leader over a graft scandal involving subordinates.
Ahn pledges to deal with North Korea with a two-track approach of sanctions and dialogue, though he’s said that the current tensions make it difficult to resume talks immediately. He would back the deployment of THAAD, but has said he’s open for the missile system to be withdrawn if China cooperates with sanctions on North Korea and signs emerged of a improvement in ties with Pyongyang.
The millionaire inventor of an antivirus software startup has said that youth unemployment is South Korea’s most urgent economic issue. He pledged to provide subsidies to boost the salaries of employees in smaller companies, and also wants to shake up the education system to give more room for creativity.
His popularity, which had been in single digits for weeks, jumped by 9 percentage points last week, after he delivered some feisty primary speeches.
Hong Joon-pyo (4%)
The 62-year-old South Gyeongsang province governor last week secured the nomination for the Liberty Korea Party, formerly known as Saenuri under Park. Hong is a former prosecutor and lawmaker who says he elevated himself from his working-class background without any financial support from his illiterate mother.
Hong is pitching himself as a “strongman” who can contend with “nationalist” leaders from the U.S., Japan, Russia and China. He wants to bring U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to South Korean soil and create a special marine force to better respond to North Korea.
On the economy, he has said he wants to “release companies being choked by the leftists under the name of economic democratization” to spur investment and job creation.
To defeat Moon and Ahn, he is trying to lure Yoo Seong-min, a presidential candidate for another conservative party, Bareun, to drop out and support him. Yoo, who has so far rejected Hong’s overtures, received 2 percent support in last week’s survey.