South Koreans elected liberal Moon Jae-in as president and was sworn in office on Wednesday, vowing to address North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and ease tense ties with Washington and Beijing.
In his first speech as president, he said he would immediately begin efforts to defuse security tensions on the Korean peninsula and negotiate with the US and China to ease the row over a US missile defense system being deployed in the South.
He also planned to announce major cabinet and presidential staff appointments almost immediately to bring a swift end to a power vacuum left by the removal of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, in March in a corruption scandal that rocked South Korea’s business and political elite.
“I will urgently try to solve the security crisis,” Moon said in the domed rotunda hall of the parliament building. “If needed, I will fly straight to Washington. I will go to Beijing and Tokyo and, if the conditions are right, to Pyongyang also.”
The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) in the South has angered China, Seoul’s major trading partner, which sees the US system’s powerful radar as a threat to its security.
The issue has clouded efforts to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and also led to recriminations by Beijing against South Korean companies.
Moon, 64, also pledged to sever what he described as the collusive ties between business and government that have plagued many of South Korea’s family-run conglomerates, known as chaebol, and vowed to be an incorruptible leader.
“I take this office empty-handed, and I will leave the office empty-handed,” Moon said.
Moon met leaders of opposition parties before his simple swearing-in ceremony at parliament and promised to coordinate better with them on national security issues.
Office workers and passersby lined the streets as Moon’s motorcade passed through central Seoul en route to the presidential Blue House from parliament. Moon stood and waved to well-wishers through the sunroof of his limousine, which was flanked by police motorbikes and a security detail.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe both congratulated Moon on Wednesday. Xi said China was willing to handle disputes with South Korea “appropriately” on the basis of mutual trust and understanding.
As president, Moon must find a way to coax an increasingly belligerent North Korea to ease its nuclear and missile threats. Pyongyang has conducted its fifth nuclear test and a series of missile launches since the start of last year, ratcheting up tension on the peninsula.
Washington wants to increase pressure on Pyongyang through further isolation and sanctions, in contrast to Moon’s advocacy for greater engagement with the reclusive North.
The last time South Korea had a liberal leadership it embraced a “Sunshine Policy” of rapprochement with Pyongyang and, as a close aide to then president Roh Moo-Hyun, Moon helped arrange the last inter-Korean summit with late North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.
But his scope for maneuver will be limited, analysts say.
Under Moon, Seoul’s policy towards the North will change “substantially”, Robert Kelly of Pusan National University told AFP, “but less substantially than many people on the South Korean left and Moon himself would like”.
Unlike 20 years ago, when the Sunshine policy was first introduced, the North now has nuclear weapons, an increasingly advanced missile program, and a reputation as a drug manufacturer and counterfeiter.
To his critics, any concession to Pyongyang is dangerous and they accuse Moon — whose parents fled the North during the Korean War — of being a Communist sympathizer. Others suggest his presidential victory could give the US added flexibility.
Trump has moderated his tone more recently, saying he would be “honored” to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, and Cheong Seong-Chang of the private Sejong Institute told AFP that Washington was “groping for an exit following all the huffing and puffing over the past few months”.
“Moon’s policy of engagement may appear to clash with Trump’s line of heaping utmost pressure and sanctions, but they are complementary to each other as Seoul may play a ‘good cop’ role here,” he said.
In one of his first acts as president, Moon spoke by telephone with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lee Sun-jin. A separate statement from Moon’s Democratic Party said he was briefed on the status of the North Korean military and South Korea’s military readiness.
The White House also congratulated Moon, saying it looked forward to working with him to strengthen the longstanding US-South Korea alliance.