Moon Jae-in, South Korea's new president, faces stiff domestic challenges and is less inclined towards confrontation with North Korea than either his predecessor or the Trump administration. Nevertheless, South Korea’s alliance with the United States is likely to endure with some modifications and perhaps, given North Korea’s provocations, some upgrades.

The Republic of Korea (South Korea) has a new president following a five-month impeachment and electoral process that concluded with the election of Moon Jae-in on 9 May. Moon narrowly lost the presidential election to Park Geun-hye in December 2012, but Park was impeached by the National Assembly on 9 December 2016. The Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment on 10 March, setting the stage for Moon’s election. Under the 1987 constitution, the president serves for a single five-year term, with the election held in December and the president-elect inaugurated about two months later in late February. However, the constitution does not provide a transition period for elections following an impeachment, resignation or death of the president. Therefore, President Moon took the oath of office as soon as the electoral results were certified the following morning.

Political uncertainty paralysed governance during the five-month impeachment interregnum. Other factors exacerbated the problem. Park had stumbled repeatedly due to poor vetting of appointments, and her legislative agenda never got off the ground because the unicameral National Assembly had been sidetracked by the scandal surrounding the National Intelligence Service’s interference in the December 2012 presidential election, and then by the sinking of the Sewŏl ferry in April 2014. The Sewŏl tragedy resulted in 304 deaths, mostly of high school students, and it came to symbolise Korean society’s dissatisfaction with Park’s leadership.

Domestic policymaking has been adrift for years, and South Koreans have high expectations for the Moon administration to address a number of pressing issues that have been festering in the shadow of a rapidly ageing population that is a ticking time-bomb for tax revenues, pensions and military conscription. These issues include corrupt relations between business and government, the high cost of education, high youth unemployment, environmental problems and a general malaise and despair stemming from South Korea’s hyper-competitive society. Most of the potential solutions to these problems will require new legislation, but Moon’s Democratic Party holds only 120 seats in the 300-member National Assembly. The next elections for the legislature are not until April 2020, so Moon will have to seek compromises in the form of a party-merger and realignment, or through frequent ad hoc coalition building to accompany each piece of new legislation.

All national leaders must deal with domestic and international issues simultaneously, but the current situation for Seoul is exceptional. Moon will not be able to avoid regional and international strategic issues, but the international community should not underestimate the amount of time and effort the Moon administration will have to devote to domestic problems.

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What lies ahead for South Korea?

South Korea's new president faces stiff domestic challenges and is less inclined towards confrontation with North Korea than either his predecessor or the Trump administration.