Gwangju—Moon Jae-in, a human rights and labor lawyer who came of age protesting authoritarian military governments backed by the United States, assumed South Korea’s presidency Wednesday after a snap election that repudiated nearly a decade of right-wing conservative rule.
Moon, 64, took office after securing about 41 percent of a total popular vote of 32.8 million, far ahead of his closest rival, the conservative Hong Joon-pyo, who ended up with 24 percent. It was the largest margin in Korean election history, the wire service Yonhap reported.
“I will restore a government based on principle and justice,” Moon declared Tuesday night in a nationally broadcast speech from Seoul’s Gwanghwamun district, which is famous for its political protests. “I will be the proud president of a proud nation.”
After being sworn in Wednesday, he startled the nation with a ringing declaration calling for a new foreign policy based on negotiations and dialogue. “I will do whatever it takes to help settle peace on the Korean Peninsula,” including visiting North Korea, Moon told the National Assembly. In a nod to Washington, he also declared he would “further strengthen the alliance between South Korea and the United States.”
Moon’s election was the direct result of the impeachment of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who had embraced Washington’s hard-line policies toward Pyongyang. She was brought down after millions of citizens angry about corruption, economic mismanagement, abuse of power, and the uncertain future of Korean youth flooded the streets of Seoul and other major cities in a peaceful movement now known as the “candlelight revolution.”
In an exclusive interview with The Nation after a Sunday-night rally in Gwangju, Moon said his election, and the movement that preceded it, was the culmination of his nation’s long march toward democracy. “We have had many remarkable achievements,” he said. “But all those events couldn’t complete the civil revolution. Now we’ve finally done it through the candlelight movement. This is a remarkable achievement, of which we should be proud.”
Moon, a former human-rights lawyer, traced South Korea’s democratic history back to 1960, when its first president, Syngman Rhee, was overthrown. He ticked off the highlights of the past 30 years: the student-worker demonstrations in Pusan, his hometown, that preceded the assassination of the country’s first military dictator, Park Chung-hee, in October 1979; the bloody Gwangju Uprising in May 1980 against the martial-law regime imposed by another general, Chun Doo-hwan; and the Korean people’s final push for democracy and direct presidential elections in June 1987.