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South Koreans Choose New President After Previous One Is Jailed

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

South Korea has chosen its next president. While the vote counting is still underway, two of the three main contenders in the race have conceded. And that leaves Moon Jae-in, who is expected to replace a president who was removed from office for corruption. NPR's Lauren Frayer has been covering this story in Seoul. Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what's the atmosphere like where you are tonight?

FRAYER: Well, Moon Jae-in's supporters haven't waited for official results to come out before they started their celebrations. Here's the sound of some of Moon's supporters at his party headquarters.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

INSKEEP: It sounds like a basketball game or something. People are...

FRAYER: It does. They are chanting, Moon Jae-in, president. Now, meanwhile, people are gathering in another area of Seoul where protesters have camped out for months calling for the ex-President Park Geun-hye's ouster. And many of the supporters who were behind calls for her impeachment and removal from office support Moon Jae-in. He was once a protester like them back in the 1970s. And he's expected in the wee hours of Wednesday morning here to make his way down into that crowd for a victory speech.

INSKEEP: What do you mean he was a protester like them? What's his story?

FRAYER: He grew up under a military dictatorship in the 1970s and '80s in South Korea. He was a student activist. He was hauled into jail several times. And so that arrest record that he had made it difficult for him to become a judge. That was actually his first choice of a profession in life. He became a human rights lawyer instead. He also did a stint in the army special forces. And one of his campaign promises is to talk with North Korea. That would be a big change in South Korean policy. We've had nine years of conservative hard-line rule here.

And Moon has a very personal reason, one of his reasons, for wanting to talk to the North. And that's because his parents are from there. They were refugees rescued on a U.S. warship at the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. It sounds like a movie. He lived through this drama. His family did. Moon was born in the South three years later, just before the war ended.

INSKEEP: Lauren, I'd like to ask what might seem like an obvious question, but to me, anyway, it's not. And that is if you're going to talk with North Korea, what do you want to talk about? What is his objective? Is he hoping for reunification of the country? Is he hoping that North Korea will calm down its nuclear program? Does he have something else on his mind? What's he want to discuss?

FRAYER: Well, after nine years of conservative hard-line rule here, six party talks broke down under the current North Korean leader's father's rule. And a lot of especially younger South Koreans who supported Moon say, why not try talks? Why not revive this Sunshine Policy of Korea - South Korea's left, which involves dialogue and economic aid to the North?

INSKEEP: OK. So they're willing to talk and obviously his voters are willing to talk. But was that the main thing on voters' minds when you interviewed people?

FRAYER: Not as much as you would think. Many people here have actually been much more concerned with domestic issues. You mentioned we have an ex-president on trial for corruption. By the way, the head of the country's biggest company, Samsung, has also been indicted in a corruption scandal. Economic growth has turned sluggish. Youth unemployment is near a record high. Here's one voter, a 39-year-old housewife, Kim Djou-he (ph), talking about what was important for her in this election.

KIM DJOU-HE: I would like to change our society, Korean society. If you work hard, you gain more. If you study hard, you gain more. That's what I want. But now the system never work like that.

FRAYER: And she was a Moon Jae-in voter. Moon Jae-in has vowed to fight corruption and add public sector jobs here.

INSKEEP: OK. Lauren Frayer, thanks very much for your work, really appreciate it.

FRAYER: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: Lauren Frayer is reporting from South Korea, which has elected a new president, a man who says he wants talks with - or rather, South Korea has elected a new president, a man who says he wants talks with North Korea, although South Koreans have plenty to discuss among themselves. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.

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