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South Korea election

Resurgent conservatives will challenge South Korea's Moon

Dynamic will pose familiar threat to new president's policy agenda

South Koreans awoke to a new president on Wednesday. Leading liberal candidate Moon Jae-in cruised to victory with a plurality of 41% of the vote, boosted by high voter turnout.

Unfortunately, Moon's moment of euphoria will likely be short-lived as he comes to grip with the harsh reality of governance. With meaningful economic growth and new employment opportunities sorely needed, Moon will need to gain immediate traction to satisfy the demands of an electorate yearning for change economically as well as in the fundamental ethos of leadership following the downfall of conservative president Park Geun-hye.

The electoral performance of conservative candidates Hong Jun-pyo and Yoo Seong-min highlights what will likely be a difficult path ahead for Moon. Hong, the candidate of the Liberty Korea Party whose members had stood behind Park, unexpectedly finished second to Moon with 24% of the vote. Yoo, representing the breakaway Bareun Party, garnered almost 7%. Thus, even in the wake of Park's scandals, the conservatives were still able to command almost one-third of the vote and Moon was blocked from winning a majority.

There is speculation that Bareun may reunite with Liberty Korea. Indeed, 12 Bareun lawmakers defected to Liberty Korea just before the election, leaving Bareun with 20 seats in the National Assembly and giving Liberty Korea 107. With the election over, there will be increasing pressure on the remaining Bareun legislators to join forces with the main conservative group. Doing so would make Liberty Korea the largest party in the 300-seat National Assembly, ahead of Moon's Democratic Party of Korea, which has 119 lawmakers.

A coordinated conservative opposition would undoubtedly make it much more difficult for Moon to implement an effective policy agenda. This threat is exacerbated by uncertainty about how willing Ahn Cheol-soo, who finished third in the vote with 21%, will be to coordinate with Moon given the falling out which led Ahn to break away from Moon's party last year to form the People's Party. With such variables in play, Moon's electoral mandate is tenuous at best.

Roh redux

With Moon poised to lead the liberals back into power after a 10-year hiatus, the dynamic between conservatives and liberals bears comparison to the time when Roh Moo-hyun, the last liberal president, was in office. Moon was also at the center of power then as Roh's chief of staff.

Conservative resistance to Roh was vociferous. Shortly after he finally yielded office to his conservative successor, a corruption investigation into his family spearheaded by the new government led Roh to commit suicide. Moon and other liberals have described Roh's treatment as "political murder." From both a personal and policy perspective, Roh's presidency will loom over Moon as he assumes power.

In particular, Moon has consistently expressed his willingness to engage North Korea by continuing the so-called "Sunshine Policy" advanced by liberal predecessors Roh and Kim Dae-jung. Conservatives are strongly opposed to this. In the wake of seemingly habitual North Korean provocations, Liberty Korea's Hong garnered significant last-minute support in this week's vote partly due to his avowed hard line on North Korea.

Moon's North Korea policy will also likely put him at odds with the U.S., which has adopted a more aggressive, if somewhat unfocused stance towards North Korea in the first few months of the Trump presidency. Coordination between South Korea and the U.S. is critical in addressing North Korea, but may prove difficult given the apparent policy gap that exists.

Moon has expressed multiple times the need for South Korea to learn to say "no" when necessary to Washington. If the relationship between the two countries is not managed well, we may see a deterioration akin to what was witnessed during Roh's presidency, which for many observers was the nadir of the alliance. In this context, an important footnote is that Trump has yet to name a new ambassador to South Korea.

As intractable as the North Korea nuclear weapons problem has been, Moon's greatest challenges will be domestic. It is also in this arena where he will need the most legislative support, which will prove difficult given the composition of the National Assembly. With campaigning over, the conservatives will likely now re-position themselves to resist many of Moon's policy efforts. Consequently for Moon, his election day promise of reform and unity may remain unfulfilled.

David S. Lee is a senior lecturer at the University of Hong Kong School of Business.

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