Moon Jae-in is South Korea’s current and 19th President since May 2017. He was elected after the impeachment of the previous President, Park Geun-Hye as the candidate for the Democratic Party of Korea, a liberal political party. The charismatic Moon is soft-spoken and humble. He is riding a wave of popularity the first year into his presidency with a record 83% approval rating, the highest for any South Korean President in their first year. Moon’s pledge to improve relations with North Korea before the elections culminated in a handshake with North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un across their respective country’s borders. That image has become the symbol of Moon’s rapid work for peace in the Korean peninsula.
Moon Jae-in’s path to becoming one of Asia’s most powerful people came from very humble beginnings. Born in Geoje, South Korea during the last year of the Korean War, his parents were refugees from North Korea. His family eventually settled in Busan where they encountered financial hardships. Moon once said in an interview that his family was too poor to even afford a bike or monthly school tuition. However, Moon excelled academically and was accepted to Kyung Hee University with a full scholarship. There he met his future wife, Kim Jung-sook. He led a student protest which caused him to be imprisoned and expelled from the university. In 1989, he passed the second round of his bar exam. Due to his history of activism Moon chose to go into private practice.
Moon started in politics by first being a national assemblyman after winning a seat in the Sasang District of Busan in April 2012. That same year he also ran to become the President of the United Democratic Party against Park Geun-Hye but narrowly lost. In 2015, Moon took over as chairperson of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy which was soon renamed the Democratic Party of Korea. Moon’s vocal opposition calling for the President’s ouster, promises of firm but patient dealings with North Korea and pledge to enact a stimulus plan to combat a rising unemployment rate paved the way for him to garner a comfortable victory in the 19th South Korean presidential election.
Moon Jae-in got to work immediately after being elected as there was no transition period between the election and inauguration. One of his first major acts as President was to overrule his predecessor’s mandate on the usage of state-issued history textbooks in 2018, even after the previous Park government responded to the backlash by not requiring schools to use the textbooks. Schools will instead be also allowed to choose privately published, government-approved textbooks written under educational guidelines.
Taking the President’s seat in the wake of one of South Korea’s biggest ever corruption scandals, Moon promised greater transparency. He opened an office website where petitions with 200,000 signatures within 30 days require an official government response. The presidential residence has also been moved from the palatial and isolated Blue House to an existing government complex in downtown Seoul.
He has also been active in combating Chaebols, or family-owned conglomerates, to clamp down on corruption and collusion. Moon appointed “chaebol sniper” Kim Sang-jo to the role of fair-trade commissioner.
Moon’s energy policy is to move away from nuclear and coal towards an increase in natural gas consumption. He wasted no time on this as he shut down eight coal-fired power plants upon assuming office and pledged to shut down the ten remaining by the end of his term. In June 2017, about a month into his presidency, Moon stated “we will abandon the development policy centred on nuclear power plants and exit the era of nuclear energy.” Plans include delaying the construction of nuclear reactors, cancelling plans for new nuclear power plants and not renewing licences for operating plants. He has re-opened dialogues around a decade-old idea of a natural gas pipeline from Russia that passes through North Korea. Even though liquefied natural gas is a finite resource, Moon has emphasised (like many other nations did) on renewable sources as being able to meet his country’s energy demands in the long-term.
Moon has also been a huge supporter for the adoption of abandoned animals. He adopted a four-year-old black mongrel, Tory, and saved him from a dog meat farm. For a country such as South Korea which allows for the consumption of dog meat, this sent a strong message against the dog meat trade, especially considering that previous “first dogs” had been purebred Jindo dogs.
Moon’s most notable accomplishment so far in his relatively short tenure as President would be the rapid and stark peace progress with North Korea. Since the division of Korea in 1945, tensions between the two countries have always been high and North Korea is a major security issue for South Korea. Tensions were especially high in 2017 after North Korea’s series of provocative missile launches and sixth nuclear test.
Moon saw an opportunity to “break the ice” during the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. At the opening ceremony, South and North marched under the Korean unification flag. North Korea also sent an unprecedented high-level delegation including Kim Jong-un’s younger sister and President Kim Yong-nam. It was the first time a member of the ruling Kim dynasty had visited South Korea since the Korean War. All of Moon’s work on peace culminated in a handshake between Moon and Kim Jong-un at the border of their two respective countries, providing a powerful image of reconciliation that has become a symbol for this year’s unprecedented peace progress between North and South Korea. He was also a key mediator in the historical North Korea-United States summit.
It is probably too presumptuous and optimistic to have serious talks on a reunification between North and South Korea just yet. However, in July 2017, Moon has characterized the process leading to unification as a long-term project in a regional context and expressed hopes of working with the international community. No further detailed plans were specified. He also indicated the importance of establishing a peace treaty with North Korea to end the Korean War. Today, it has become much more of a possibility with both sides showing clear intention to sign such a treaty and Moon promising such by the end of the year.
Although vastly popular among his people, Moon has not delivered on the top priority of the Koreans which is reviving the economy and creating jobs. The very same Chaebols which was largely responsible for South Korea’s amazing economic growth over the past few decades has now contributed to record high youth employment of almost 10%. In an economy dominated by Chaebols who operate globally, they are hiring less at home while local SMEs, the lifeblood of job creation, are struggling due to the dominance of Chaebols. There is leeway for Moon as he is still a little more than one year into his presidency. He will be expected to deliver some concrete results on the economy in the second year of his presidency or his approval rating will take a hit.
Moon Jae-in is a welcome sight to the millions of Koreans who had just experienced one of their country’s biggest political scandal close to two years ago. His charisma, transparency and readiness for peace have endeared him to his people. It has been a wonderful start for Moon and a great political recovery for Korea. The eyes of the world are certainly watching what will come next as Moon goes deeper into his second year as President.