Ahn Young-Joon / REUTERS South Korean presidential election candidates, from left, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea, Hong Joon-pyo of the Liberty Korea Party, Yoo Seong-min of the Bareun Party, Sim Sang-jung of the Justice Party and Ahn Cheol-soo of the People's Party in Seoul, May 2017.

What the South Korean Election Means for Trump

How Washington Can Work With the Next Administration

On Tuesday, at a time when the regional and global order stand at an uncertain juncture, South Korea will choose its next president. Despite the noise and headlines surrounding North Korea, the primary concerns of most voters are jobs, welfare, education, and government accountability, not their hostile northern neighbor. South Koreans are tired of the glass ceiling, wide income disparities, and the corruption of their leaders. The latest political crisis, resulting in former president Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, and the scandal that led to it, epitomizes everything the public wants overhauled. This is the enormous reconstruction job that awaits the next South Korean president. The public wants a new leader who will break the status quo and implement genuine economic and political reforms.

Public opinion polls have shown Moon Jae-in of the progressive Democratic Party to hold a comfortable lead, reflecting fatigue and frustration from a decade of conservative rule. Ten years ago, for the same reason, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. But the final seven days are “blind elections” with an end to polling, and daily twists in South Korean politics make it impossible to call the race until all votes are cast in this historic snap election. Last week’s early voting recorded at its highest of 26.06 percent voter turnout; no exit polls were allowed.

Still, U.S. President Donald Trump’s comment that Seoul should pay for a U.S. anti-ballistic missile system (called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD) recently deployed in South Korea has boosted the progressives’ chances—which Trump may later regret—and angered the broader public. The perception is that Washington has bullied Seoul into accepting THAAD and then shoved the bill at its close ally.  

THE FUTURE OF THE ALLIANCE

With the North Korean nuclear-missile threat continuing to grow, the Washington–Seoul alliance’s coordination has become ever more critical. A win by the progressive candidate could spell turbulent times for the partnership, because of completely divergent views on how

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