South Korea’s Moment of Truth

April 19, 2017


The impeachment, ouster and now indictmentof South Korea’s president after months of protests, and the presidential race this has spawned, are about as much political drama as any nation could wish for. Yet all this is being played out in parallel with the crisis over the bellicose efforts by North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, to assemble a nuclear arsenal and the threatening rumbles this has provoked in Washington. It’s hard to imagine a worse time for a country to have a political convulsion.


But want it or not, that’s where South Korea finds itself. And it need not prove disastrous: The fall of the president, Park Geun-hye, over arrant corruption marked the coming-of-age of a democracy that had hitherto regarded political malfeasance as a necessary adjunct of economic development. The challenge now is for the election of her successor to be an equally responsible exercise in selecting a president who can both advance the deep reforms demanded by the protesters and provide the intrepid leadership demanded by the military threat.

The popular uprising against Ms. Park reflected more than indignation over the bribes she is accused of extorting with a shadowy confidante, Choi Soon-sil; it was a demand to end the cozy and sometimes collusive relationship between government and the family-controlled conglomerates that has dominated the economy for decades. In the best of times, that would be a tough task; the next president will enter office with Ms. Park on trial and Mr. Kim rattling missiles.

With three weeks to go to the May 9 election, the campaign has shaped into a two-way race. Moon Jae-in, a 64-year-old human rights lawyer of the leftist Democratic Party, which holds the most seats in Parliament, was initially thought to be a shoo-in to succeed Ms. Park. But Ahn Cheol-soo, 55, a former physician who made a fortune in software, has surged in the polls, in part because many voters appear to believe he is better suited to deal with the North Korean threat.

The candidates have advanced similar programs: Both have promised reforms; both have emphasized the importance of the alliance with the United States while stressing the need for dialogue with the North. Yet many South Koreans, especially conservatives, seem to think that Mr. Ahn would be more likely to work well with the Trump administration than the left-leaning Mr. Moon. One key issue is the planned American deployment of an antimissile system known as Thaad. Both candidates initially opposed the deployment, but Mr. Ahn now says it would be “irresponsible” for the next president to reverse the decision of the preceding administration.

A lot can still happen over the next three weeks — a North Korean nuclear test, for instance, or more saber-rattling in Washington. As the campaign intensifies, it is essential for the candidates to do their best to ensure that their race serves not to add to the anxieties of their nation or their allies, but to demonstrate that South Korea’s democracy has achieved a strength and maturity capable of withstanding an extraordinary challenge.