When asked to define his worst attribute, Moon Jae-in declared he was “no fun”, says the Financial Times. “That this is about the strongest criticism political rivals can throw at him speaks volumes about South Korea’s new president.”
A former human rights lawyer – and the son of North Korean refugees – Moon is known as “a man of quiet principle”. The challenges he faces are daunting, from tackling the country’s endemic cronyism to managing North Korea’s mercurial Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. But his “probity” marks a refreshing change for a country still reeling from the lurid corruption scandal that engulfed his predecessor, Park Geun-hye.
Former colleagues point out that Moon’s reserve shouldn’t be seen as weakness. “He looks soft but he is tough inside,” says one. He is certainly keen to drive through real change, planning a host of economic, corporate and political reforms. But the issue closest to his heart is rapprochement with the North, says Time. After seven decades apart, Moon believes it is “his destiny” to bring the two Koreas closer. “The North and South were one people sharing one language and one culture for about 5,000 years… Ultimately we should reunite.”
Moon, 64, was born “in the shadow of war”. His parents fled the North in 1950 and settled on South Korea’s Geoje Island. Moon spent his first years strapped to his mother’s back while she sold eggs. The family later relied on the local Catholic church for supplies of cornflour and milk powder, says the South China Morning Post. “Poverty dictated my childhood,” says Moon. “But there were benefits: I became independent, more mature than my peers, and I realised that money is not the most important thing in life.”
Academic success at high school earned Moon a place at university in Seoul, where he studied law and organised protests against the regime of strongman Park Chung-hee (the father of the recently impeached president). He was conscripted in 1976 and saw active service in the special forces, training to “parachute behind North Korean lines”.
He later set up in practice with fellow lawyer, Roh Moo-hyun. The pair were at the forefront of South Korea’s pro-democracy movement. Roh became president in 2003, and Moon joined the government. It wasn’t a successful administration and soon after leaving office in 2008, Roh killed himself. Moon (nicknamed “Shadow of Roh”) was determined to pick up his mantel, and made a failed bid for the presidency in 2012 before winning this year.
Some fear Moon could preside over “Roh 2.0”, says The Korea Times. His allies counter that no one understood Roh’s “weak points” as well as him, and he’s determined not to repeat them. Even so, many US officials “view Moon with suspicion” because of Roh’s perceived “anti-Americanism”. He now faces the tricky tasks of talking trade with Donald Trump, and defusing America’s “deepening” nuclear crisis with North Korea. Let’s see how he handles them.