South Korea's president Moon Jae-in thanks supporters in Seoul, South Korea, May 10, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
South Korea's president Moon Jae-in thanks supporters in Seoul, South Korea, May 10, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The son of North Korean refugees, once jailed for political activism, a former human rights lawyer, and now South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in will take the oath of office on Wednesday and speak to the nation shortly after.

With the former president Park Geun-hye in jail on corruption charges and the threat of North Korean aggression looming, the irony of Moon’s win hasn’t been lost.

His parents escaped from the North during the Korean War that ended in an armistice 64 years ago, while in the 1970s he was jailed for protesting the rule of Park Chung-hee, the father of the now incarcerated former president.

“I will make a just, united country,” Moon told a crowd gathered just before midnight to see the man who entered politics to lead a party just five years ago.

Later on Wednesday he indicated a meeting with North Korea was possible under the right conditions, a suggestion that US President Donald Trump has also said he would be willing to consider.

Moon’s immediate tasks are to navigate the country through rising tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program, a China angered by Seoul’s decision to expand missile defenses, and the risk of a rift with the US over how to contain Pyongyang.

Most leaders face challenges such as expanding the economy, boosting jobs, financing social security and similar. Moon has all those and a neighbor run by the Kim dynasty of dictators that has a million-man standing army and thousands of tanks and artillery pieces pointed at Seoul, which it regularly threatens to destroy in a rain of fire and death.

Moon plans to announce cabinet and presidential staff appointments almost immediately to end a power vacuum left by the removal of his predecessor in March. He will hold his first media briefing as president at 2:30 p.m. (0530 GMT) on Wednesday after a simple inauguration ceremony.

South Korea's president Moon Jae-in speaks to supporters in Seoul, South Korea, May 9, 2017. Seo Myeong-gon /Yonhap via Reuters
South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in speaks to supporters in Seoul, South Korea, May 9, 2017. Seo Myeong-gon /Yonhap via Reuters

In his first public act as president, Moon, 64, spoke by telephone with South Korea’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lee Sun-jin to get a briefing on North Korea and South Korea’s military readiness.

The United States, South Korea’s main ally, wants to increase pressure on Pyongyang through further isolation and sanctions, in contrast to Moon’s advocacy for greater engagement with the North.

He also needs to figure out how to ease tensions with China stemming from the deployment of a US anti-missile defence system in South Korea that Beijing sees as a threat to its own security.

In his first public appearance as president, Moon visited the National Cemetery in Seoul on Wednesday to pay his respects to South Korean heroes.

Parliament minority

Moon faces a divided parliament in which his Democratic Party lacks a majority. To push through major initiatives, including creating 500,000 jobs annually and reforming the country’s powerful family-run conglomerates, he will need to forge partnerships with some of the parties and politicians he fought fiercely on his path to the presidency.

Moon won with 41.1 percent of the votes, but that seemingly comfortable margin belied an ideological and generational divide in the country of 51 million people.

The election has been watched closely by allies and neighbours, with North Korea believed to be gearing up for its sixth nuclear test and vowing to test an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Moon’s election could add volatility to relations with Washington, given his questioning of the deployment of the U.S. military’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defenses (THAAD) anti-missile system, but is not expected to significantly change the alliance, a U.S. official told Reuters.

The White House congratulated Moon, saying it looked forward to working with him to strengthen the longstanding U.S.-South Korea alliance. China also sent its congratulations.

Daniel Russel, Washington’s former top diplomat for Asia, told Reuters the differences between Moon and U.S. President Donald Trump would mean inevitable friction, but “don’t portend a crisis or failure” for relations.

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