Moon Jae-in is new President of South Korea: All you need to know about the human rights lawyer

South Korea's new president is a former pro-democracy activist and special forces soldier whose electoral victory caps a turbulent political career — he was jailed by his predecessor's father.

Moon Jae-In of the Centre Left Democratic party won Tuesday's presidential election in a landslide, taking 41.1 percent of the vote, far ahead of his nearest rival.

The vote followed the impeachment of Park Geun-Hye, who was sacked in March after a sprawling corruption scandal prompted millions to take to the street for months to call for her resignation.

The irony is that Moon was once chief of staff to president Roh Moo-Hyun, who committed suicide in 2009 after himself being questioned over allegations of graft.

Moon was born on the southern island of Geoje in 1953 during the Korean War after US forces evacuated his parents — and 100,000 other refugees — from the Northern port of Hungnam.

His father was a menial worker at a prisoner-of-war camp while his mother peddled eggs in the nearby port city of Busan, with the baby Moon strapped to her back, the politician wrote in his autobiography.

He was awakened to social issues at an early age, he wrote in another book published this year.

"As the oldest son on whom my family was pinning their hopes, I was supposed to study hard, but school lessons focused on college entrance exams appeared meaningless to me," he wrote. "I was always in a dilemma."

South Korea president Moon Jae-in. AP

South Korea president Moon Jae-in. AP

He entered law school in Seoul in 1972 but was arrested and expelled for leading a student protest against the authoritarian rule of dictator Park Chung-Hee — the ousted president's father.

In 1975, he was detained for months and convicted of taking part in illegal protests.

Once released, he became a special forces soldier during his compulsory military service.

His unit took part in Operation Paul Bunyan, when the US and South mounted a vast show of force, including the deployment of B52 bombers, to cut down a tree in the Demilitarized Zone where two American soldiers trying to trim its branches had been axed to death by North Korean troops.

Moon returned to school in 1980 only to be arrested again. Kim Jung-sook, the college classmate who took care of him after he was injured by a tear gas canister shot by police, later became his wife.

Heal the wounds

He and his liberal mentor Roh opened a law firm in Busan in 1982 focusing on human and civil rights issues.

Both became leading figures in the pro-democracy protests that swept the country five years later and led to South Korea's first direct presidential elections.

When Roh entered politics, Moon — whose criminal conviction meant he could not become a judge — continued in legal practice, defending students and workers arrested for leading protests and labour strikes.

But a year after Roh's unexpected election victory in 2002, Moon joined the administration as a presidential aide, tasked with weeding out official corruption and screening candidates for top government posts.

Later he defeated an attempt to impeach Roh, before rising to become his chief of staff — a job so stressful that he had to have 10 teeth replaced.

He spearheaded preparations for the second inter-Korea summit between Roh and then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in 2007, part of the "Sunshine policy" of engagement with Pyongyang begun by Roh's predecessor Kim Dae-Jung.

Two years later Roh was dead, throwing himself from a cliff after he was questioned over corruption allegations following the end of his term.

It fell to Moon to arrange his high-profile funeral, when millions turned up in central Seoul to bid him a tearful farewell to Roh. Kim Dae-Jung, seen weeping uncontrollably in a wheelchair during the event, died three months later.

"I became desperate, and decided to become stronger to heal the wounds of people," Moon said.

Blue House

Reserved, earnest and mild-mannered, 64-year-old Moon is often said to be bland and lacking the charisma of the two ex-leaders whose signature oratorical skills and firebrand style captivated many.

Opponents say he is narrow-minded and surrounded by jealous loyalists, whose strong factionalism contributed to his party splitting while in opposition.

But supporters describe empathy and calm perseverance as key strengths.

Conservative critics also accuse him of being too soft towards nuclear-armed North Korea, with which he advocates dialogue and reconciliation as a precursor to negotiations.

He has insisted that he was the best candidate to reform chaebols — the powerful, family-run conglomerates that dominate Asia's fourth-largest economy — saying he owes them "nothing", unlike other politicians brought down by corruption scandals.

Moon himself has often described his personality as unfit for cutthroat politics, saying he preferred other civic duties as a lawyer and was "happy" to regain his "freedom" when Roh left the Blue House. Now he returns to office.

 


Updated Date: May 10, 2017 09:38 AM

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