The election of South Korea's Moon Jae-in could mean big changes for the Pacific Rim

Liberal candidate Moon Jae-in has declared victory in South Korea’s elections on Tuesday, and his projected win could lead to a shift in the region’s dynamics.

Exit polls suggest Moon is ahead of his conservative opponent, former prosecutor Hong Joon-pyo, although the official results won’t be out until later.

A Moon victory would bring an end to roughly a decade of conservative leadership in South Korea, and could lead to shifts in the the country’s relationships with North Korea and China.

Moon previously stated he supports dialogue with North Korea in order to mollify rising regional tensions, as opposed to his predecessor’s cooperation with the US in enforcing sanctions on the hermit kingdom. He’s also in favour of re-opening the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint project between North and South Korea, in a step that would run counter to attempts to isolate the North.

There is also the possibility that a Moon presidency could lead to improved relations with China, according to Scott Seaman, Asia Director at Eurasia Group, which could prove an even bigger deal than Moon’s attention-grabbing stance North Korea.

“A softer stance toward China is particularly important, in our view,” said Jan Dehn, head of research at Ashmore Group, in a note. “With the US withdrawal from [the Trans-Pacific Partnership] and China’s stated pro-globalization stance South Korea’s longer-term interest may be shifting towards China and away from the US, especially if the US becomes more protectionist.”

Philippines has already become more ambiguous towards the US, so if South Korea follows suit Japan will find itself increasingly isolated in the Pacific Rim,” he added.

Moon also said the decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system was made hastily, and that he would “review” its future if he were elected.

China perceives the missile defence system as a threat to its security. Following its deployment, there has been some backlash against South Korean businesses and products by Chinese customers, according to the New York Times.

“[T]here is a possibility that [Moon] will seek to have it removed from South Korean soil,” said Capital Economics’ Senior Asia Economist Gareth Leather and Asia Economist Krystal Tan in a note.

“Such a move would likely pave the way for China to reverse the retaliatory measures that have contributed to a slump in the number of mainland tourists visiting Korea and a collapse in Korean car sales in China.”

International relations aside, bread-and-butter economic issues remained central in the election. “Despite the noise and headlines surrounding North Korea, the primary concerns of most voters are jobs, welfare, education, and government accountability, not their hostile northern neighbour,” Duyeon Kim, a visiting fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul, wrote in Foreign Affairs.

Although South Korea’s overall unemployment rate ticked down to 3.7% in March, the youth unemployment rate clocked in at 11.30%. Youth unemployment has roughly doubled since the early 2000s.

Moreover, “South Koreans are more concerned that Trump, rather than North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, will make a rash military move, because of his outrageous tweets, threats of force, and unpredictability,” Kim added.

Moon, the son of refugees from North Korea, previously was the chief of staff to South Korea’s previous liberal president, the late Roh Moo-hyun. He worked towards closer ties with North Korea by creating large-scale aid shipments and by working on joint economic projects, which have since stalled, according to the AP.

Tuesday’s election follows the ousting of former President Park Geun-hye, who was removed from office and arrested over corruption allegations back in March. Therefore, there won’t be a transitional period and Moon will step into office immediately.

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