South Koreans weigh domestic and global issues for presidential poll

Trump and North Korea on the agenda alongside economy and LGBT rights

South Korean presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party is greeted by supporters during an election campaign in Seoul on Monday. Photograph: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

North Korea’s nuclear threat, sluggish economic growth and US president Donald Trump’s warlike words hang over South Korea’s presidential election, but gay rights and economic matters are the issues on the ground when it comes to casting a vote.

Moon Jae-in, the front-running liberal with the Democratic Party of Korea, gave free hugs to citizens to celebrate the high turnout of the early voting in an early ballot, despite a hoax assassination attempt.

As you would expect from the country that produced tech titans Samsung and LG, and where getting a passport is a same-day experience, the voting procedure is high-tech.

Digitally-registered voters can cast their vote pretty much anywhere and can obtain information about candidates using a QR code on their phone.


Ferry disaster

The public square Gwanghwamun, in Seoul, where millions of Korean citizens rallied last year to demand the resignation and impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye, is full of TV trucks but quiet ahead of the polls. The big focus here is the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014, in which more than 300 people, most of them students, died.

One word that all Koreans know in English is “secret” and many are understandably reluctant to discuss their voting intentions.

Mr Moon’s closest rivals, Ahn Cheol-soo of the centre-left People’s Party and Hong Joon-pyo of the former ruling Liberty Korea Party, are tied in the polls at about 19 per cent. In all, there are 13 candidates but five real contenders.

The election was brought about by the spectacular downfall of ex-president Park Geun-hye, who is in jail after her impeachment in March following a corruption and influence-peddling scandal.

Ms Park's political demise followed demonstrations on Gwanghwamun and while accusations of sleaze led to her impeachment, for most South Koreans the most damning charge was her absence for seven hours during the sinking of the Sewol.

Mr Hong is popular on the street, but his campaign has been hit by scandal after he admitted in a 2005 memoir to helping a friend while still at college to obtain a stimulant that was used in an attempted date rape. His fiery rhetoric and sexist remarks have earned him comparisons with Mr Trump.

Gay rights

A large number of voters express their support for the only woman running in the election, Shim Sang-jung of the Justice Party, but as she is not considered to have a chance of winning, many of them say they won't vote for her this time. Ms Shim is the only candidate who has openly backed gay rights.

“I will be voting for Moon Jae-in. I like Shim Sang-jung, but it’s time for Moon Jae-in. Next time I’ll vote for Shim because she is good for women, but not now,” said law student Lee Jae-un.

Joseph Lee (25), a perfumier, dislikes Mr Moon, mostly because of the politician's views on homosexuality, which remains a hot-button issue in Korea, especially since it is now more than 10 years since the collapse of legislation outlawing discrimination on various grounds including sexual orientation

“I oppose it . . . I don’t like it,” Mr Moon said in televised debate in response to a question from conservative candidate Hong Joon-pyo about homosexuality in the military.

Mr Hong has argued that homosexuality in the army would make it unable to fight North Korea’s army of 1.2 million – presumably heterosexual – soldiers.

“I hate [Mr Moon] because of what he said about gays in the military. All of the gays are going to vote for Shim, but not just because she is the woman candidate: she would be a better president,” said Mr Lee.

Kim J (30), a software engineer from Suwon, does not like Mr Moon either. “Maybe I will vote for Moon to make sure one of the conservatives doesn’t get in. I think they really hate gay people,” he said.

Another contentious issue is the worry that the deployment of the US terminal high-altitude area defence (Thaad) anti-missile system could bring the allies into conflict. Mr Moon has criticised the decision to instal Thaad so soon before the elections. Mr Trump's tweeting about getting Seoul to pay more for its defence against North Korea, as well as drastically revising a trade agreement, could see divisions opening up in US-South Korean relations.

“In my opinion Thaad is a good thing because it is an effective way of bring Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table. We are Korean, and we can talk about things,” said Mr Kim.

“North Korea is not such a big issue for us Koreans. Every year the North comes out with its threats, and we do our manoeuvres, and it’s fine. But now we have Trump to think about.”

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing