On May 9, South Korea held presidential elections to fill Park Geun-hye’s seat after her ouster in fall of 2016. Moon Jae-in, the progressive leader of the Democratic Party, assumed office the following day and has become the twelfth President of the Republic of Korea.
But in all the excitement you might be asking, just who is Moon Jae-in? Here are some need-to-know facts about the background, personal life, and political philosophy of the man now leading the republic.
1) Born and raised to be a leader
Moon Jae-in was born 24 January 1953 in Geoje, South Gyeonsang Province, the first son among five children. Taking on the important role of eldest son might explain how he developed an inclination for leadership even in his formative years. His family moved to Busan when he was a teenager, where he received high marks in high school and had a keen interest in human rights issues.
2) Rebel with a cause
While a student at Kyung Hee University, Moon was quite active in protest movements. He was even arrested and expelled from his university after he organized a student protest against the Yushin Constitution, which effectively consolidated governing power in then-President Park Chung-hee’s hands. In a historical plot twist fitting for a Korean drama, Moon has now assumed the seat of ousted president Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the very man he opposed so fervently many years ago, and whom he lost the Presidential race to in 2012.
3) The best ‘how I met your mother’ story
Moon’s activism in his university days led to his meeting his wife, Kim Jung-sook, at a student protest while they both were attending Kyung Hee University. In an interview, Moon talked about how, at one protest, he was knocked unconscious by police. When he came to, he looked up at the woman tending to him—the woman who would become his future wife! They have two children together, a son and daughter.
4) Defender of the People
Moon was a successful human rights attorney for many years, taking on high-profile labor and civil rights cases against corporations and the government. During his career he became friends with another lawyer, Roh Moo-hyun, who would later become President of Korea in 2002. The two men took up many cases involving civil and labor rights for Korean citizens. Moon moved up in the political world once Roh became president, serving as his close aide and chief of staff.
5) Pioneer of the Press
Moon was a founding member of the progressive South Korean newspaper The Hankyoreh when it was established in 1988. The founders created the paper as an alternative to contemporary mainstream newspapers, where dissident journalist had largely been purged by the authoritarian regimes of the time. This continued Moon’s progressive trajectory and raised his public profile as a champion of the ‘little guy’.
6) The ‘Dark King’
Moon is referred by some by his nickname, the ‘Dark King’(myung-wang) due to his resemblance with ‘Silvers Rayleigh’, a character from the Japanese manga ‘One Piece’. Did this pop-culture connection help him win the election?
7) North Korea connection
As the eldest son of a North Korean refugee, Moon can claim a heritage in both countries on the peninsula. He was also a soldier in South Korea’s special forces and completed a mission following the infamous axe murder incident that occurred in the DMZ in 1976.
8) New paths for unification
Moon sets himself apart from the former two presidents in his approach to the leadership in North Korea. He has criticized the heavy-handed approach of former Saenuri party presidents Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak, arguing that their conservative policies have done little to help relations between the two countries or to stop the Kim regime’s nuclear program. Like previous liberal presidents, Moon supports parts of former-President Kim Dae-jung’s ‘Sunshine Policy’, beginning with reopening the Kaesong industrial complex to help rejoin North and South in economic partnership. Moon does, however, support the controversial THAAD missile program, a venture between South Korea and the US. This seems to signify a compromise between those who want to change course on North Korea and those who believe Washington should still be seen as the Republic’s greatest ally.
9) A Catholic man
Moon is the second Roman Catholic South Korean president after the late Kim-jae Jung. His baptismal name is ‘Timothy’. While Moon’s religious views might have some impact on his political inclinations, they do not appear to trump his overall progressive platform. For instance, since Korea is a relatively traditional country, he does not publicly support marriage equality for LGBTQ citizens. But he has publicly affirmed his support of equal rights for all minorities, including those that might be marginalized by their sexual orientation. It will be interesting to see how his position on social issues evolve and come into play with his standing in the Church.
10) An end to family business rule?
Because of his promise to reform South Korea’s massive family-run conglomerates—known as chaebols—Moon has garnered significant support from those seeking anti-corruption reforms. It was Samsung executives whose ties to senior politicians were exposed by the Park scandal. Moon also hopes to create plans to drive the economy and increase employment for those under 30. However, he faces hurdles due to his recently changed his stance on taxes, as he is now shying away from tax increases in lieu of strengthening civil service agencies and bolstering the Korean economy.
South Korea faces a number of economic, social, and foreign policy challenges in both the near and distance future. But it seems that the people have chosen a leader in Moon that they can get behind. It remains to be seen where he takes this country and whether the people will remain in his corner.