South Koreans will choose a new president on Tuesday in a vote that will turn on several crucial issues: relations with North Korea and the United States; economic inequality; and the enduring power of the country’s family-controlled conglomerates, known as chaebol. Here’s how these issues are playing out in the election.
Handling North Korea
Under the current conservative government, South Korea has taken a confrontational approach toward the North, engaging in military exercises with the United States off the peninsula and participating in tightening sanctions over the North’s missile and nuclear weapons programs. But the candidate leading in the polls, Moon Jae-in, has said he is open to a dialogue with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, over the nuclear issue, a sharp break with recent policy. Mr. Moon, the candidate for the Democratic Party of Korea, says sanctions alone are not enough to persuade the North to freeze and then dismantle its nuclear programs.
One of his rivals, Hong Joon-pyo, the candidate for the Liberty Korea Party, has said that a government under Mr. Moon would be too soft on North Korea. Mr. Hong says he is the true representative of conservatives, who favor close ties to the United States, and is calling for “armed peace” that supports the status quo of being tough on North Korea.
Relations with the United States
A defining issue has been the current government’s acceptance of an American antimissile system on South Korean soil to guard against missile attacks from the North. Mr. Moon’s main opponents — Mr. Hong and Ahn Cheol-soo, a centrist who represents the People’s Party — have expressed support for the deployment of the system, called the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or Thaad. Mr. Moon, by contrast, has called the system’s recent deployment “very regrettable” and in a book published recently said South Korea should learn to “say no to the Americans.”
The impeachment and recent removal from office of President Park Geun-hye in an influence-peddling case underline the strong influence of the chaebol in the upper reaches of government. Similar scandals have failed to curb the power of these family-controlled conglomerates.
As in the past, most candidates have promised legislation to make the chaebol more transparent and to make it harder for chairmen to help their children amass fortunes through dubious but lucrative deals involving their companies. Mr. Moon wants to give minority shareholders more power in electing board members of such conglomerates, which, he says, could ultimately dilute the families’ control over the chaebol. Mr. Ahn, the centrist, has been similarly critical, suggesting that the government’s Fair Trade Commission should have more power to regulate the chaebol.
Mr. Hong, the conservative, has colorfully pledged to rid the country of corruption by putting it through a washing machine. He wants to crack down on the power of labor unions and is candid about favoring the chaebol because of their importance in the economy.
The youth unemployment rate, for people 25 to 29, reached 8.2 percent in November, its highest level since 1999, raising questions about the country’s ability to create jobs for recent college graduates.
Mr. Moon has vowed to create 810,000 jobs in the public sector and raise taxes for the wealthy. But Mr. Ahn, an entrepreneur, has said that plan would be too costly. He has instead focused on the private sector, saying “companies underpin growth of the country while creating jobs.” He wants to guarantee employment for young people for five years, while promising wages at small companies that would be comparable to what they could earn at conglomerates.