Who is Moon Jae-in?
Born on a small island in South Korea at the tail end of the Korean War, Moon Jae-in spent his early years in poverty. He became a leader of student demonstrations while attending Kyung Hee University, and after two decades as a human rights lawyer, he joined the administration of President Roh Moo-hyun in 2002. Moon launched his own political career as a national assemblyman in 2012. Following the scandal that brought down his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, Moon was elected President of the Republic of Korea in May 2017.
Moon Jae-in was born on Geoje Island, South Korea, on January 24, 1953. His parents, who had fled the North Korean communist regime, struggled to keep the family out of poverty; Moon has recounted the tale of being strapped to his mother's back as she sold eggs to make ends meet.
Despite the hardship, Moon proved a bright child, and he was accepted into the prestigious Gyeongnam Middle School in Busan. His activist leanings were sparked at Kyungnam High School, and he later led protests against President Park Chung-hee while studying law at Kyung Hee University, resulting in his arrest at one demonstration.
Conscripted into the army's special forces, Moon in 1976 took part in "Operation Paul Bunyan," the response to the killing of two American soldiers in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). He returned to his studies and activism later in the decade, reportedly learning he had passed the bar exam after his arrest at another demonstration in 1980.
Moon maintained his academic excellence through the Judicial Research and Training Institute, graduating second in his class in 1982. However, he found he was disqualified from becoming a judge due to his extensive involvement with anti-government protests.
From Lawyer to Top Political Aide
Around this time Moon met Roh Moo-hyun, another lawyer who shared many of the same values. They teamed up to run a Busan law firm that specialized in human rights, often taking on cases for students and low-wage laborers.
Moon continued with the practice after Roh left to launch a successful political career in 1987. In 2002, after Roh was elected South Korea's president, Moon again joined forces with his old friend, this time as senior secretary for civic affairs.
Although he later referenced his early awkwardness as a public servant, Moon capably adjusted to his new responsibilities. In 2004, he helped oversee the opening of Kaesong Industrial Park, a joint economic project between the North and South Korean governments. In 2007, he took over as Roh's chief of staff and was named chairperson of the promotion committee for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Happy to return to private practice after the Roh administration ended in 2008, Moon was thrust into the spotlight after Roh committed suicide the following year, serving as the public face for a mourning contingency.
Picking up the slack for his departed friend and mentor, Moon in 2012 was elected a national assemblyman out of the Sasang-gu District in Busan. That year he also ran for president against Park Geun-hye, the daughter of his old antagonist, Park Chung-hee, before enduring a narrow loss.
Moon in 2015 took over as chairperson of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, which soon became the Democratic Party of Korea. In late 2016, after news surfaced of Park's improper dealings with a longtime confidante, Moon was at the forefront of the protests calling for the president's ouster, leading to her impeachment and formal removal from office on March 10, 2017.
Moon quickly emerged as the leading candidate to assume the vacant presidency. He promised firm but patient dealings with the increasingly aggressive tactics of North Korea, expressing hope in a reunified peninsula, and pledged to enact a stimulus plan to combat a rising unemployment rate. On May 9, 2017, Moon nearly doubled the vote of his next-closest rival to win the 19th South Korean presidential election.
South Korean President
In his new role, Moon announced his plan to move out of the traditional Blue House and be available to the public as the "Gwanghwamun president." He also put forth the policy goals of his administration, which included an emphasis on addressing income inequality and the decentralization of governmental authority.
In the meantime, the president faced the immediate problem of North Korea leader Kim Jong-un's attempts to develop his nuclear weapons program. While professing solidarity on the issue with U.S. President Donald Trump, Moon nevertheless demonstrated that he would have a firm say in matters of negotiation and military strategy: In June 2017, he halted the activation of the U.S.-installed Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system (THAAD), pending an environmental review.
A few months later, during his state of the nation address at the National Assembly, the president reaffirmed his goal of eliminating nuclear weapons on the peninsula. "According to the joint agreement by the two Koreas on denuclearization, North Korea's nuclear state cannot be accepted or tolerated. We will not develop or possess nuclear weapons either," he said.
Improved Relations and Meeting with North Korea's Kim
The start of 2018 brought progress on that front, thanks to Kim's willingness to reach out to his southern neighbors. In January, representatives from North and South Korea met at the border truce village of Panmunjom, resulting in an agreement to have their athletes march under the banner of a unified Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympics, held the following month in PyeongChang, South Korea. Additionally, the North Korean leader sent his sister Kim Yo-jong as an emissary to the Games.
The lines of communication remained open even after the conclusion of the Olympics, with some of President Moon's top aides traveling to Pyongyang for the first visit by South Korean officials since Kim took power in 2011. The aides also relayed Kim's willingness to talk with U.S. officials to their counterparts in Washington, D.C., setting the stage for a historic summit on that front.
On April 27, Kim became the first North Korean leader to cross the border into South Korea, for a meeting with Moon in Panmunjom. The partly televised event produced plenty of warm embraces and symbolic flourishes, as well as discussions on the important issues facing the two countries: Along with announcing that they wanted a formal end to the Korean War, which wound down with a truce but not an armistice in 1953, the two leaders also signed a statement in which they "confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula."
Moon met his wife, singer Kim Jung-sook, while both attended Kyung Hee University. Married in 1981, they have two children together.
The president has authored multiple books, including his 2011 autobiography, Moon Jae-in: The Destiny.
(Photo: Kim Min-Hee-Pool/Getty Images)
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