SEOUL, South Korea – A former anti-government student leader, Moon Jae-in stands poised to succeed ousted leader Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the slain South Korean dictator who jailed him in the 1970s.
Moon, the current front-runner in Tuesday’s election, has led a life that seems custom-made for a starring role in South Korean opposition politics.
The son of North Korean refugees, he waited in line as a boy in war-ravaged Busan for free U.S. corn flour and milk powder. Imprisoned as a university student for trying to topple South Korea’s military rulers, the dictatorship later forced Moon into South Korea’s elite special forces. He became a human rights lawyer and then rose to what the media called “King Secretary” to the last liberal leader of the country, with whom he worked to reconcile with North Korea. He later defended that mentor from corruption charges.
Moon, 64, who lost to Park in the 2012 elections by a million votes, says this election will probably be “the very last challenge in my life.” He said in a video message last month that he wants to be a leader who “opens the door for a new era, new politics and a new generation. This is my desperate wish … I’ll definitely win.”
Moon’s popularity rose after Park was felled by a huge corruption scandal that left the country’s powerful conservative establishment rudderless.
Moon’s nearest rival is a moderate, Ahn Cheol-soo. But Moon has established a growing lead in recent polls.
He has said that if elected, he’ll build a more assertive South Korea, improve ties with North Korea and review the contentious deployment of an advanced U.S. missile defense system in the South.
Some analysts say Moon’s rise to power will clash with President Donald Trump, who wants more pressure on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and has suggested that South Korea should pay more for U.S. security commitments. Others say the seriousness of the North Korean nuclear threat means Moon likely won’t push for any drastic changes.
Similar worries surrounded Moon’s friend, late President Roh Moo-hyun, who was elected in 2002 on a pledge not to “kowtow” to Washington, though he later sent troops to Iraq at U.S. request and forged a free trade deal with the United States.
No understanding of Moon’s career is complete without Roh, the darling of South Korean liberals who leapt to his death in 2009 amid a corruption scandal involving his family.
Both started their careers as lawyers, with Moon joining Roh’s law office in the 1980s. They worked together to defend the rights of poor laborers, student activists and other ordinary people until Roh entered politics as a lawmaker in 1988.
After Roh became president, Moon took up a spate of top jobs at the presidential Blue House. He oversaw Seoul’s preparations for the 2007 historic inter-Korean summit talks between Roh and Kim Jong Il, the late father of current North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un. South Korean media called Moon “King Secretary” during Roh’s 2003-2008 term.
When Roh was impeached in 2004 on alleged election law violations and incompetence, Moon worked as one of his defense lawyers before the Constitutional Court eventually returned Roh to power. When Roh faced a corruption investigation after leaving office, Moon was his lawyer. After Roh killed himself, Moon announced his death on TV.
“When I drink a little, I sometimes recall my old days. Then I ask myself: ‘What does Roh Moo-hyun mean in my life?’ ” Moon wrote in a memoir published before his failed presidential bid in 2012. “He really defined my life. My life would have changed a lot if I didn’t meet him. So he is my destiny.”
Moon was the eldest son of parents who fled North Korea after the 1950-53 Korean War broke out and settled in South Korea’s southeastern port city of Busan.
When he was a first- and second-grade student, he went to a Catholic church with a bucket to receive free U.S. relief goods.
“It was an unpleasant thing to do. But that was the role of the eldest son. Nuns sometimes slipped candies and fruit into my hands as I was a little kid. … Those nuns looked like angels to me,” Moon said in the memoir.
After entering Seoul’s Kyung Hee University in 1972, Moon joined student protests against Park Chung-hee, an army general-turned-dictator who ruled the country for 18 years following his 1961 coup. In 1975, Moon was expelled from his school and jailed for months for staging anti-Park protests. He was set free after getting a suspended prison term and conscripted into South Korea’s special forces. All able-bodied men in South Korea must serve in the army, but Park’s government often sent dissidents on tough assignments.
The senior Park was gunned down by his intelligence chief in 1979, and Moon was allowed to return to school. But Moon rejoined student activism and was jailed again after Chun Doo-hwan, an army general who seized power via another coup following Park’s death, squashed calls for democracy.
Moon was later released thanks to what he was told were the lobbying efforts of university officials. Moon said he initially wanted to become a judge, but authorities didn’t allow that because of his past record of student activism. He got a lawyer’s job at Roh’s office.
Moon said Roh’s death led him to pursue politics; he wants to amplify his mentor’s successes and overcome the failures. When millions rallied for months against Park Geun-hye late last year, Moon described it as an effort to eradicate deep-rooted social inequalities and corrupt ties between political and business circles, many of them legacies of Park’s dictator father.
If he fails again to win back liberal rule, Moon says he’ll quit politics for good.
“Maybe, I can work as a lawyer again,” Moon wrote recently. “But if I become an ordinary citizen, I want to live freely no matter what I do.”
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