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Moon Jae-in elected president after promising major shift in policies

May 10,2017
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President-elect Moon Jae-in leaves his residence in Hongeun-dong, Seodaemun District, western Seoul, Wednesday morning to visit Seoul National Cemetery. The visit was his first activity as Korea’s 19th president. [YONHAP]
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Then-presidential chief of staff Moon Jae-win walks with President Roh Moo-hyun. The composed manner in which Moon took care of Roh’s funeral in May 2009 earned him the nickname “Roh’s Last Standing Chief of Staff.”
Moon Jae-in of the liberal Democratic Party was elected Korea’s 19th president in a change of power to the liberal force after nine years of conservatives’ grip on power in what will be the beginning of a dramatic departure from government policies in the past decade on areas ranging from economy, national security to North Korea.

Moon clinched presidency by winning 41.08, or 13.4 million votes. Runner-up Hong Joon-pyo of the conservative Liberty Korea Party (LKP) followed in second with 24.03 percent of votes, trailed by People’s Party Ahn Cheol-soo with 21.41 percent. Bareun Party nominee Yoo Seong-min and minor progressive Justice Party nominee Sim Sang-jeung came next with 6.76 and 6.17 percent each.

Moon achieved a landslide victory by earning 5.56 million votes more than LKP’s Hong, the largest gap in Korea’s presidential election history. With Moon, a former human rights lawyer and the former presidential chief of staff for Roh Moo-hyun, Korea is set to experiment on a number of policies that stand in sharp contrast to the two former conservative governments of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, especially with respect to North Korea.

“Starting tomorrow, I will become a president of all the people,” President Moon said in his victory speech early Wednesday to address his supporters in Sejongno Park, central Seoul. “I will serve all Koreans, including those who voted and did not vote for me, to be a president of unity. I will make a country that serves justice and the rule of law and where the people’s will triumphs.”

On the campaign trail, Moon stressed he would try to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table in an attempt to dissuade the reclusive country from furthering its nuclear program. He emphasized resuming dialogue with the Kim Jong-un regime as a way to ease growing tension on the peninsula.

Such a stance contrasts the North Korea policies of Lee and Park, who stood firm on the condition that Pyongyang give up its nuclear ambitions before resuming talks or inter-Korean cooperation.

Moon, 64, was narrowly defeated by Park in the 2012 election. Then, as now, he promoted a series of liberal policies that included greater engagement with North Korea and reform of South Korea’s powerful chaebol, or family-run conglomerates. He also pledged to overhaul the country’s criminal justice system and amend the constitution to introduce a new governing system that would reduce the power of the president.

Tuesday’s election was a landmark in the country’s political history, taking place after Park’s presidency was terminated in March through an impeachment process in the aftermath of a massive abuse of power and corruption scandal. Throughout the two-month campaign that followed, almost all the candidates pledged to end or combat decades of cozy relations between the government and big business.

Moon was born during the Korean War on Jan. 24, 1953, to parents who had fled from North Korea to the South in December 1950. They were among tens of thousands of refugees who boarded U.S. military ships in an evacuation that is now famously known as the Hungnam evacuation. Whenever his critics accused him of being sympathetic to the North, Moon would often cite his family’s story to refute the claims.

Moon grew up in abject poverty, but he believes the poverty helped him become a more independent and responsible person. “I consider poverty at the time a gift,” he wrote in his 2011 memoir “Destiny.” “My principle that money is not the most important thing stems from lessons I learned during my youth.”

In 1972, Moon entered Kyung Hee University on a full scholarship to study law. He found his cause among student activists fighting the military rule of Park Chung Hee, the father of Park Geun-hye. He was arrested in 1975 for protesting against the Park government and forcibly called to serve in the army after his release.

He was assigned to the Special Forces unit upon completing boot camp, and on the campaign trail, Moon often showed pictures of himself in Special Forces gear to dispel suspicion that he might be too weak on matters of national security.

Moon passed the bar exam in 1980 and hoped to pursue a legal career as a judge but failed the vetting process because of his student activist career. At the time, the country was still ruled by a military strongman, this time Chun Doo Hwan.

He returned to his hometown of Busan to partner with Roh Moo-hyun, who would later become Korea’s 16th president, and worked as a human rights lawyer. He soon found himself at the center of street protests against the Chun government, fighting shoulder to shoulder with Roh.

As Roh’s partner, Moon defended labor activists and pro-democracy activists in the early 1980s.

Fast forward to 2003, he entered a second chapter in his partnership with Roh as senior presidential secretary for civil affairs. Moon then served as Roh’s chief of staff in the waning years of his presidency.

Just over a year after Roh returned home to Bongha Village in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang, after serving out his term, Roh was embroiled in a bribery scandal implicating his former aides and family members.

The former president committed suicide 24 days after being questioned by prosecutors. The composed manner in which Moon took care of Roh’s funeral process earned him the nickname “Roh’s Last Standing Chief of Staff.”

In the 2012 presidential race, Moon ran as the unified candidate for the progressive bloc. Following a hard-fought race, he lost to Park by a margin of 3.5 percent.

Moon later said he regretted not being better prepared.

“I can’t deny the fact that I was not desperate enough to win the election,” said the then-defeated candidate in his memoir “1219: The End is the Start of Beginning” published in 2013. Moon attributed his defeat to his lack of preparation and ability as presidential candidate in the book.

In February 2015, he threw his hat into the ring after two years of absence from political spotlight to become the DP chairman. Moon took helm of the country by defeating Park Jie-won, who later left the party to join hands with Moon’s rival Ahn Cheol-soo in the People’s Party. For the next 10 months, Moon was able to sharpen his political skills as the leader of the country’s largest opposition party, but it was not without fierce opposition from those who had opposed him within the party. A group of 20-some lawmakers abandoned the DP in protest of the way Moon steered the party, calling his leadership style “intolerant” and “high-handed.” At the forefront of such a defection was Ahn, who finished the May 9 election in a distant third with 21.4 percent.

Overcoming such challenges to his leadership, Moon was able to hand his party a surprise victory in the April general election last year, making it the party with the largest number of parliamentary seats. From that point on, people began to recognize Moon as a real short at the country’s next president who would end a decade of conservatives’ grip on power.

The political landscape began to ravel rapidly with the unfolding of the Choi Soon-sil scandal that implicated senior Park administration officials as well as President Park herself on accusations that Park had extorted millions of dollars from conglomerates in exchange of policy favors in collusion with Choi. Joining street protests with candles in his hands demanding Park step down, Moon was put right back into the center of political drama, cementing popularity among voters disheartened and frustrated with the conservative government.

Riding on the momentum created by the political up and down that ultimately dragged Park from power and led to the country’s fist snap presidential election, the former human rights lawyer handily won the DP primary by defeating South Chungcheong Governor An Hee-jung and Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung. While concerns arose that the party suffered from internal rift from a hard-fought race, Lee and An threw their support behind the party candidate and asked voters to back him on Election Day in a display of party unity.

After 22 days of hard campaign that included six televised debates, the former Special Forces solider won the election Tuesday, 15 years after his lifetime partner Roh did.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]