Presidential preview: Moon Jae-in

Story by: James Little, Photos by: Adela Ordoñez

Having prevailed over the idealistic independent, Ahn Cheol-soo, to run as the sole liberal candidate, Moon Jae-in now stands face-to-face with Park Geun-hye. A long-time, if not reluctant, participant in South Korean politics, Moon Jae-in came to prominence as a close friend and major political adviser to the late liberal president, Roh Moo-hyun. Acting first as Roh’s campaign manager during the 2002 South Korean presidential election, and then following on as Roh’s closest aide and eventually chief of staff, Moon has a wealth of experience at the top echelons of Korean presidential power.

Foreign policy

All we know about Moon’s foreign policy is that he has a special interest in North Korea. He was a key player in the previous Roh Moo-hyun administration and will likely give the failed Sunshine Policy another go-round. 

Here is what he has had to say about North Korea:  

“I plan to take fundamental steps to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue with simultaneous, bilateral dialogue between Pyongyang and Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington, and Pyongyang and Tokyo.” — Speaking at Seoul’s Sejong Center, Oct. 4

“The Kim Jung-un regime is showing a different image compared to the past. North Korea’s leadership style as well as something in the power group is changing, and signs of change in the regime’s economic policy are being observed. 

“The international community is showing attention to this change and seeking how to set up a new relationship with North Korea.” — Speaking on Aug. 17

“I will end the Korean Peninsula’s tragic history of confrontation and distrust … We should help North Korea’s new leadership to change positively, and achieve inter-Korean collaborative growth by becoming a more mature promoter of peace on the Korean peninsula.” – Speaking on Aug. 17

Liberal pedigree

Like many liberal candidates before him, Moon’s qualifications for entering politics come from his work as a human rights lawyer. 

Growing up poor on Geoje Island and having just seen the end of the Korean War, Moon struggled amongst the more well-to-do students at his school. Although a smart student with good grades, Moon was known more for his fighting, drinking and smoking. 

He studied law at Kyunghee University, but again had difficulties conforming to a system he didn’t agree with.

Moon took the path of many liberal candidates before him as a student activist and spoke up loudly against the reign of Park Geun-hye’s father, dictator Park Chung-hee. 

During this period he was arrested and jailed several times, yet managed to complete both his law degree and his mandatory military service. Rejecting calls from top law firms to go and work for them, Moon instead took a job in Busan alongside several prominent human rights lawyers. 

One of those lawyers was a man named Roh Moo-hyun.

Me and my shadow

The relationship between Moon and Roh spanned almost 30 years and took them to the top echelons of power. They worked together through the ‘80’s in Busan, primarily on legal cases involving the still-persistent human rights abuses of the authoritarian regime. In 1987, when South Korea finally saw a move toward free and democratic elections for the first time in its young history, the two were asked to run for seats in the National Assembly. Roh entered the Assembly in the following year, while Moon declined and stayed behind in Busan to continue his legal work.

Although Roh experienced difficult times in the following 15 years, when he found himself leading the liberals and about to campaign for president, there was only one man Roh trusted enough to act as his consigliere. Moon very shortly afterward found himself running Roh’s 2002 presidential campaign — a race that Roh and Moon ultimately won.

During the next five years, Moon was in and out of the executive office of Cheong Wa Dae, assisting Roh when the need arose. Most notably, Moon came to act as counsel for Roh when the president found himself in the middle of an impeachment trial for illegal electioneering. Moon continued to stand by Roh for the rest of his presidency and remained there until Roh’s suicide in 2009 under mounting charges of corruption.


Moon encountered almost no resistance within the DUP during the primaries. This was probably because all eyes were on Ahn Cheol-soo. Yet within days of winning the nomination, and the news media becoming restless with the timing of Ahn’s announcement, Moon shot to the front of the pack for presidential contenders. 

Moon, it seems, may be the most traditional candidate of the three. While Ahn has talked about wanting a clean and new campaign and Park has taken great efforts to cross the aisle and work with the opposition as well as longtime allies, Moon seems to be falling into familiar political patterns. Moon has in the past spoken of letting bygones be bygones, yet recently he chose to only pay respects to the graves of previous liberal presidents Roh Moo-hyun and mentor Kim Dae-jung. The act of paying respect in this manner is a gesture that is considered incredibly important in Korean politics, as Park Geun-hye proved by attempting to visit the graves of left-wing politicians. 

As for his policy platform, Moon, like all politicians, is promising to put “people first.” This would most likely include a sizeable welfare upgrade, as well as further improvements to the protection of minority groups and the strengthening of democracy in Korea. Moon has spoken of increasing jobs by putting limitations on working conditions. This would include setting a maximum limit of 52 hours a week for full-time workers as well as reforming laws regarding part-time and “irregular” contracted work. 

Like a lot of liberal politicians around the world, Moon has been fond of the “1 vs. 99 percent” argument.


Only months ago, Moon Jae-in would have been a footnote in this article. Although the clear frontrunner for the DUP, most pundits believed that the presidential race was always going to boil down to a two-way contest between Ahn Cheol-soo and Park Geun-hye. Moon proved them wrong. Within days of a decisive win in the primaries of the DUP, the second-largest political party in South Korea, Moon had made incredible gains in the national polls. In fact, only hours before Ahn officially announced his candidacy for the presidency, Moon led Park in the popular vote.

Ahn’s decision to announce only following the DUP primaries created a three-way race that instantly put the liberals on the back foot with Moon and Ahn splitting the left-wing vote.

However, if this had effected Moon’s dedication to his campaign he certainly wasn’t showing it. Moon continued with a vigorous campaign schedule that saw him working harder than any of the other candidates. Moon made sure it was clear to the media and the voting public that he was no one’s third wheel.

After playing political chicken with Ahn for several months over who would run as the sole liberal candidate and who would not, Moon finally managed to step over this proverbial thorn in his side to compete head-to-head with Park for the presidency.

With Ahn now stepped aside and Moon the sole liberal candidate running, the outcome of this election very much stops with him. For any chance of victory, Moon must invigorate the dormant liberal base which Ahn originally attracted, and convince them that he can bring about the kind of change they are desperate to see. 

As with many elections, a low voter turnout will almost guarantee a loss for the liberals. Moon’s best chance at being the next president rests on him ensuring that doesn’t happen.

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