Gwangju—Moon Jae-in, a human rights and labor lawyer who came of age protesting authoritarian military governments backed by the United States, assumed South Korea’s presidency Wednesday after a snap election that repudiated nearly a decade of right-wing conservative rule.
Moon, 64, took office after securing about 41 percent of a total popular vote of 32.8 million, far ahead of his closest rival, the conservative Hong Joon-pyo, who ended up with 24 percent. It was the largest margin in Korean election history, the wire service Yonhap reported.
“I will restore a government based on principle and justice,” Moon declared Tuesday night in a nationally broadcast speech from Seoul’s Gwanghwamun district, which is famous for its political protests. “I will be the proud president of a proud nation.”
After being sworn in Wednesday, he startled the nation with a ringing declaration calling for a new foreign policy based on negotiations and dialogue. “I will do whatever it takes to help settle peace on the Korean Peninsula,” including visiting North Korea, Moon told the National Assembly. In a nod to Washington, he also declared he would “further strengthen the alliance between South Korea and the United States.”
Moon’s election was the direct result of the impeachment of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who had embraced Washington’s hard-line policies toward Pyongyang. She was brought down after millions of citizens angry about corruption, economic mismanagement, abuse of power, and the uncertain future of Korean youth flooded the streets of Seoul and other major cities in a peaceful movement now known as the “candlelight revolution.”
In an exclusive interview with The Nation after a Sunday-night rally in Gwangju, Moon said his election, and the movement that preceded it, was the culmination of his nation’s long march toward democracy. “We have had many remarkable achievements,” he said. “But all those events couldn’t complete the civil revolution. Now we’ve finally done it through the candlelight movement. This is a remarkable achievement, of which we should be proud.”
Moon, a former human-rights lawyer, traced South Korea’s democratic history back to 1960, when its first president, Syngman Rhee, was overthrown. He ticked off the highlights of the past 30 years: the student-worker demonstrations in Pusan, his hometown, that preceded the assassination of the country’s first military dictator, Park Chung-hee, in October 1979; the bloody Gwangju Uprising in May 1980 against the martial-law regime imposed by another general, Chun Doo-hwan; and the Korean people’s final push for democracy and direct presidential elections in June 1987.
“Whenever democracy has fallen into a crisis, the Korean people have sprung up in rage,” he told me. In fact, Moon played an integral part in that movement. As an activist, he was arrested twice in the 1970s and ’80s for protesting against Park (who was Park Geun-hye’s father) and Chun. He later became a labor lawyer, representing workers who had difficulty finding representation. Moon is best known as the chief of staff for South Korea’s last progressive president, Roh Moo-hyun.
With Park in jail, Moon aimed his campaign at dismantling Park Geun-hye’s “old regime,” as he called it on Sunday. His platform and campaign statements challenged nearly every policy of the remnants of her Saenuri Party, which split in two after her impeachment.
During his run, Moon called for reform of the country’s powerful conglomerates, or chaebol, which dominate the economy; a stronger focus on job creation for youth through new industries such as alternative energy; and increased wages and holiday time for workers.
Jin Joo, a public employee in Gwangju active in the Green Party of South Korea, said Moon’s campaign also spoke to voters angry about “the extreme situation” in South Korea over the Park government’s attacks on freedom of expression and political rights. An opinion poll a few weeks before the election found that 27.5 percent of the people chose “justice” as their top priority, above national security or economic growth, The Korea Times noted.
The public, said Joo, was particularly incensed by the Park government’s failure to rescue the hundreds of students and teachers who drowned in the tragic Sewol ferry accident in 2014, as well as its role in the death of Baek Nam-gi, an activist killed by a water cannon shot by police during a labor demonstration in 2015. Another factor was Park’s imprisonment of labor leader Han Sang-gyun, who was sentenced to several years in prison for organizing the demonstration where Baek received his fatal injury.
“With Moon’s election, we got to have our next president much sooner than expected,” Joo told me. The political atmosphere created by the candlelight protests leading up to the impeachment, she added, has allowed people to raise issues that “previously no one talked about,” such as LGBT and disability rights. (That didn’t always work for Moon, however. A few weeks ago, a lesbian activist confronted Moon at a campaign rally after he said during a televised debate that he “opposed” homosexuality.)
But as Moon indicated in his first speech, his election also represents the public’s desire for peace and reconciliation in their divided country. During the presidencies of Lee Myung-bak (2008-13) and Park, tensions escalated sharply with North Korea over its nuclear and missile-testing program. The situation intensified this spring, when the North tested several more missiles, leading to threats of pre-emptive strikes by the Trump administration. In April, the United States and the North appeared to be moving toward war. But as I reported, the situation caused far more concern in Washington than in South Korea.
To alleviate the tensions, Moon has promised a more “open and humanitarian” approach that would be marked by a return to the “Sunshine Policy” of South Korea’s last two progressive presidents, Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-08). During their years in office, they reached out to Pyongyang with economic projects and cultural and political exchanges. In 2007, when he was Roh’s chief of staff, Moon traveled to North Korea when Roh held a summit meeting with Kim Jong-il, the father of North Korea’s current dictator, Kim Jong-un.
At his Gwangju rally on Sunday, Moon said he would “raise my voice loudly” to place South Korea in the lead in any dealings with North Korea. He also pledged to renegotiate a deal the Trump administration struck with Park Geun-hye to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system, known as THAAD, in South Korea.
Last month, however, the Pentagon deployed the system without waiting for the election. This led Moon to criticize the move as a fait accompli and angered many South Koreans who oppose THAAD and continue to demonstrate against it. Because his policies on North Korea appear to be at odds with the more confrontational approach taken by the Trump administration, the US media framed Moon’s election as a major challenge to the United States.
Moon’s election sets “up a potential rift with the United States over the North’s nuclear program,” David Sanger of The New York Times predicted Wednesday. Just after the election results were announced, Josh Rogin, a Washington Post columnist and CNN analyst, tweeted that “South Korea just elected an anti-American president.”
In the weeks leading up to the vote, former and current US officials made it known they were unhappy with Moon’s potential policies. “We are headed for serious trouble,” a former US diplomat told Donald Kirk, a veteran reporter in Seoul, adding that a clash is “unavoidable.”
In his interview with The Nation, Moon was adamant that his more conciliatory approach toward Pyongyang would benefit the United States. “To solve the North Korea nuclear problem is in both our common interests,” he said. “If South Korea takes an active role, that would be helpful to the United States and would relieve the US burden.”
Rather than blame President Trump for the recent tensions, as many Koreans have, Moon pointed to the failures of the Park government. “The relationship between North Korea and the US has been getting worse and worse because South Korea hasn’t performed its role well,” he said.
Asked about US critics who think his approach is problematic, Moon responded emphatically, “I don’t agree.” He expressed the belief that Trump “would also sympathize with my idea and understand me on this issue.”
Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based military analyst who has been studying North Korea for decades, said Moon’s US critics should “take a deep breath and see what happens.” In a telephone interview, Pinkston said a US-South Korea clash was possible in part because Trump’s national security team is so disorganized, with top positions on Asia policy unfilled. “We don’t even have an ambassador here,” he said. “The Koreans need to understand that the Trump presidency is abnormal.”
At the same time, Pinkston added, Moon’s government could be constrained by US- and UN-approved sanctions on North Korea aimed at forcing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program. As an example, he pointed to a recent proposal from Moon for South Korea to trade its rice for rare earths from the North as a way of solving Pyongyang’s rice shortage and allowing South Korean companies to buy rare minerals at a discount. Some critics have said that could violate the UN sanctions, an issue that Moon would have to negotiate.
The success of Moon’s policies will also depend on the willingness of North Korea to reciprocate on any offers from the South, said Pinkston. “Will there be a rift? It all depends on how it’s managed,” he said.
Whatever the case, Moon is acutely aware of the pain from Korea’s division and America’s role in the war. In December 1950, his family fled the North during the initial phase of the Korean War with a group of 14,000 refugees who were brought to the South in a flotilla organized by the US Navy and its merchant marine. Moon, who was born in 1953, wrote favorably about the Americans who helped his family in his autobiography, From Destiny to Hope.
These experiences make the right-wing attacks on Moon as a “North Korean sympathizer” sound as ludicrous as the accusations from US pundits that he is “anti-American.” But if he wanted to openly criticize the United States, he declined my offer when I asked him about his thoughts on the Gwangju Uprising.
During his campaign stops here, I heard Moon say he would honor the spirit of the uprising when he became president. But in 1980, I reminded him, the United States refused to support the democratic aspirations of Gwangju and instead approved the deployment of Korean troops from the joint US-South Korean Command to put it down. Does he believe the US government should apologize?
I was surprised by Moon’s response. First, he offered his “deep thanks” to me for my reporting on Gwangju, which he said “revealed the facts and truth to the world.” That was important, he added, because at that time, “South Korea was under dictatorship and the Korean press was controlled.”
As for the United States, he added carefully, “We expected a more active US role [at the time of Gwangju]. But since then, we’ve won enough power to achieve democracy by ourselves. So I don’t think we need to be bound by the past or care about [an apology] for the US role. It doesn’t matter, because we have moved on, and established democracy for ourselves.”
Not everyone here will agree with Moon on that issue. But it’s hard to think of a better way to tell the world that a new South Korea has emerged, and is ready take its rightful place in the sun.