The people of South Korea have spoken politically the right way -- collectively through the voting place. Once again, they have confirmed support for representative democracy, carried out under the rule of law.
Newly elected President Moon Jae-in was sworn in on May 10, right after the voters’ ballots were counted after a special presidential election. He received approximately 41 percent of the vote, putting him 17 percent ahead of the nearest rival candidate, Hong Jun-pyo of the conservative Liberty Korea Party.
Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party finished a strong third, less than 3 percent behind Hong. He is the founder of a remarkably successful software company and a former dean at Seoul National University. Ahn’s campaign was characterized by intense vigorous opposition to corruption, and he is now a major player in national politics.
President Moon takes office in a time of tension and uncertainty on both sides of the 38th Parallel, the border that divides Korea into north and south.
South Korea has just experienced the ordeal of impeachment and removal from office of a sitting president, Park Geun-hye. She now faces the prospect of the further pain of a trial on charges of corruption, and may go to prison. The former president is the daughter of General Park Chung-hee, who emerged from a military coup in the early 1960s to lead South Korea as dictator until his assassination in 1979.
The new chief executive brings diverse and useful experience to the top post. His father was a refugee from North Korea. During Moon’s youth, he was arrested and spent some time in prison because of activism against the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee. Reflecting that experience, he decided to pursue a career as a human rights lawyer. He also served in the Republic of Korea army special forces, and saw action in the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) along the 38th Parallel.
Moon was chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun. He finished a close second to Park Geun-hye in the 2012 presidential election.
North Korea greeted the inauguration of a new president in South Korea by launching yet another long-range missile on May 14. The new Hwasong-12 missile reached a greater height than any of the other six tested this year. The missile reportedly could reach as far as Guam, where the U.S. maintains military facilities, according to aerospace engineer John Schilling of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Yet North Korea remains in desperate economic conditions. Early last May, Pyongyang held a Communist Party Congress. The last such party congress was held in 1980, an occasion when regime founder Kim Il-sung indicated the succession of power to his son Kim Jong-il.
Dictator Kim Jong-un wore a business suit, a departure from his standard uniform. Kim emphasized economic challenges, thereby acknowledging reality. That is progress.
Choe Son Hui, head of the North Korea foreign ministry’s North America bureau, has stated that her government is interested in dialogue with the U.S. That may also signal progress.
South Korea’s new president plans to explore fresh communication with the north. His flexible stance contrasts with his two predecessors, Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park.
Washington as well as Beijing and others should encourage this. Seoul has the high ground regarding Pyongyang not only in moral terms, but in the hard realities of economic and military strength. Above all, we should let South Korea take the lead.
-- Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact at email@example.com.