Can South Korea's New President Make Good on His Promises?

The Political Mess He Inherits

South Korea's president-elect Moon Jae-in speaks to supporters at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul, South Korea, May 9, 2017. Reuters

Moon Jae-in, a human rights lawyer who formerly served as chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun, will be South Korea’s next president. He defeated two other candidates, winning roughly 41 percent of the vote on May 9 in a snap election, which was called in March after former President Park Geun-hye was removed from office following a corruption scandal. Moon, the liberal candidate, campaigned to clean up corruption, give minority shareholders of conglomerates more power to elect board members, create jobs, and promote small- to medium-size businesses. He also promised to open a dialogue with North Korea, repair relations with China, and continue strengthening South Korea’s alliance with the United States.

But given the political mess he will inherit from Park, it is unclear whether Moon will be able to make good on his promises. On top of the domestic crisis, he faces a tense regional security situation, with an aggressive North Korea and a heavy U.S. military buildup ordered by President Donald Trump. That is why, among the many high-priority items on Moon’s desk, two should take precedence: cleaning up corruption at home and improving inter-Korean relations abroad.  


For a country that prides itself on its rapid economic development, South Korea lags far behind on government and corporate transparency. In the World Economic Forum’s 2016 annual corruption index, South Korea ranked ninth most corrupt among the advanced economies of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Even where laws exist to combat corruption, such as the sanctioning of firms that produce “substandard or fraudulent audits,” enforcement is sporadic and unpredictable. Moon must therefore work to ensure that, going forward, there is consistent application of the rule of law. As a start, the practice of presidential pardons or the relaxation of prison terms for corporate executives who were convicted for corruption must come to an end. Moon promised this during the campaign and needs to institutionalize it as law for his administration and those that

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