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World

New South Korean President Takes Office

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And moving on now, it's hard to draw a starker contrast between North Korea and its neighbor to the south, where there was a peaceful transfer of power this morning. A new president has taken office after the last one was impeached and is now on trial. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: It was after midnight when Moon Jae-in, his rivals having conceded defeat, waded into a crowd of thousands of supporters in downtown Seoul.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Over loudspeaker) Moon Jae-in.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Over loudspeaker) Moon Jae-in.

FRAYER: "Moon Jae-in, president," they chanted. Young professionals in the crowd gushed about the return to power of Korea's liberals after nine years of conservative rule.

KIM KYUNG-MO: (Speaking Korean).

FRAYER: "He's going to be the greatest president," says office worker Kim Kyung-mo, "he'll wipe out all discrimination and leave no one behind."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT MOON JAE-IN: (Over loudspeaker, speaking Korean).

FRAYER: On stage, Moon promised to unite people and serve even those who did not vote for him. And nearly 60 percent of voters did not choose Moon. There were 12 other candidates. While polls had predicted Moon's victory for weeks, the surprise was who came in second, a far-right self-proclaimed strongman. Many of his supporters call Moon a communist and believe the ousted conservative president currently on trial for corruption is innocent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRAYER: At his inauguration today, Moon, who once wrote that South Korea should learn to say no to its ally America, said he would fly to Washington...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOON: (Over loudspeaker, speaking Korean).

FRAYER: ...Immediately, if needed, and also to Pyongyang when the conditions are right.

HANS SCHATTLE: Moon really has to hit the ground running here. And he's got a lot of international difficulties for Korea to deal with.

FRAYER: Political scientist Hans Schattle at Yonsei University says it's not just North Korea's nuclear weapons. President Trump alarmed many when he said he may scrap a free trade deal with Seoul and threatened to make South Korea pay for a U.S. missile defense system that's already deeply unpopular here. Moon also has to worry about his domestic mandate, Schattle says.

SCHATTLE: So he needs to reach out to the working class, lower middle class conservatives that are not doing well in the current economy.

FRAYER: Moon inherits a country with sluggish economic growth and a record high number of young people out of work. On his first day, he nominated a prime minister from a rural left wing province and chose a former student protester like himself as his chief of staff, promising more change in an already uncertain region. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAFU'S "PHAOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.