By Juni Kim
With both the Democratic Party of Korea and the People’s Party selecting their nominees earlier this week, all of the major South Korean parties have finished selecting their candidates ahead of the presidential election on May 9th.
Below is a brief overview of the nominees from the major and minor South Korean political parties (listed in alphabetical order). Although there are other independent candidates vying for the presidency, the following five nominees are likely to play the largest roles in the election race.
Bareun Party’s Nominee: Yoo Seung-min
Once a close aide to ousted President Park Geun-hye, Representative Yoo Seung-min defected twice from the then ruling conservative Saenuri Party (currently rebranded as the Liberty Korea Party) and helped establish the splinter Bareun Party last December. The Daegu representative has campaigned on the pledge of “medium burden, medium welfare,” which suggests a reworked welfare program from a higher tax rate. The candidate has also emphasized the importance of U.S.-Korea relations, saying “(I) will have to hold talks with China and North Korea at some point, but dialogue between South Korea and the US is the most important.”
Yoo handily won the Bareun party nomination with 62.9% of the primary vote, but the latest Realmeter poll shows Yoo’s national support at 2.2%, which lags far behind the other major party candidates. Despite the uphill challenge of taking on the more popular liberal candidates, Yoo has distanced himself from the idea of forming a conservative bloc with the Liberty Korea Party.
Democratic Party of Korea’s Nominee: Moon Jae-in
Democratic Party of Korea candidate Moon Jae-in enters the last month of the election season as the clear front runner for the presidency. In most polls, Moon Jae-in has maintained a formidable lead over his rivals. The most recent Realmeter poll shows his support at 34.9% with all other candidates polling at below 20%.
Moon previously ran for president in the 2012 election, losing to eventual victor and now former President Park Geun-hye by 48% to 52%. He is also closely associated with the late liberal president Roh Moon-hyun, who he worked with during his administration.
Moon has indicated that he would likely review the controversial deployment of the THAAD missile defense system if elected. He also criticized the North Korean policy of the previous conservative administrations and said, “If necessary, we will have to strengthen sanctions even further, but the goal of sanctions must be to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table.” Moon has referred to himself as “America’s friend” and called the U.S.-Korea alliance “a pillar of our diplomacy.”
Justice Party’s Nominee: Sim Sang-jung
Sim Sang-jung of the minor progressive Justice Party enters the presidential race treading on familiar territory, having previously run twice for the presidency. During the 2012 election campaign, she withdrew her bid in support of having a liberal “unity candidate.” Her public support has hovered around the lower single digits, and her campaign faces the formidable task of taking on the larger better-funded parties in the election.
Sim earned her reputation as a labor activist in the 1980s and has become a prominent voice for progressive policies in the National Assembly. In September 2016, Sim suggested that economic incentives could be used to negotiate a nuclear freeze of North Korea’s nuclear program. She has also opposed the deployment of THAAD and criticized former President Park’s decision to pursue the defense system.
Liberty Korea Party Nominee: Hong Joon-pyo
Hong Joon-pyo, the South Gyeongsang governor and former National Assemblyman, won the nomination last week for the conservative Liberty Korea Party, formerly known as the Saenuri Party. Hong inherits a difficult political situation from his party due to the repercussions of President Park’s impeachment that have tilted public support towards the more liberal parties.
In order to form a stronger voter base, Hong has implored the Bareun Party to “come home” and merge together the two splintered parties. The Bareun presidential candidate Yoo Seong-min has remained resistant to the offer, and it is unlikely that the two parties will form a coalition before the general election.
Hong has pledged that he would maintain a hard-line policy against North Korea and would pursue negotiations with the U.S. for the possible redeployment of nuclear weapons in South Korea. His strong stance on defense extends to pledges on utilizing emerging technologies for security purposes and the creation of a special military unit to protect South Korea from North Korean commando threats.
People’s Party Nominee: Ahn Cheol-soo
Ahn Cheol-soo, the former doctor and tech mogul turned politician, hopes to take the presidency with the party he helped establish last year. After sweeping through the centrist People’s Party’s primary, he benefited from a recent upswell of public support and is currently the top presidential contender behind Moon Jae-in at 18.7%.
Ahn previously ran for president in 2012, but eventually withdrew from the race and supported Moon Jae-in. Ahn has since distanced himself from Moon and in his nomination acceptance speech declared, “Ahn’s era has arrived.”
Ahn has supported the continued deployment of THAAD in South Korea and has stated disapproval of China’s objections over the missile system. He has also expressed willingness to talk with North Korea. In speaking with reporters, he said, “A summit between the South and the North should not be an end in itself… (but) if it can be a tool to solve problems, we should consider it.”
Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Digital South Korean Presidential Candidate trading cards created by Juni Kim.