May 18, 2017 10:00 am JST

How a 'troublemaker' ended up in South Korea's Blue House

The son of North Korean refugees, Moon Jae-in took the long way to the presidency

MITSURU OBE, Nikkei staff writer

South Korean President Moon Jae-in takes a stroll with two supporters in Seoul. © Kyodo

Long before taking on the title of president, Moon Jae-in was called something rather less flattering: Moonjea, Korean for "troublemaker." The nickname, given to him by childhood friends, was perhaps fitting for a boy who had been suspended from school for drinking, smoking and getting into fights.

Born to two North Korean refugees, Moon grew up watching his parents toil away to make a living. The family managed to send him to a prestigious secondary school, but his experience there only reminded him of the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots.

His later years were no easier.

While in college, Moon was jailed for leading protests against dictator Park Chung-hee, the father of recently impeached President Park Geun-hye. Upon release, he was conscripted and put through grueling training in the army's special forces.

He was eventually discharged from the military, but shortly thereafter, his father died, putting pressure on Moon to find a job. He began studying for the bar exam while continuing his anti-government activities -- it was in prison that he received a letter notifying him he had passed.

He had performed well as a student at judicial training school but was passed over for a judgeship because of his record of student radicalism, so he returned to his home town to practice labor law.

FATEFUL MEETING Moon's hero is Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president who led America out of the Great Depression and through most of World War II.

Unlike Roosevelt, however, Moon did not necessarily harbor presidential ambitions. Nor did he possess an FDR-like physique, standing just 172cm tall and weighing 67kg.

A fateful encounter, however, would put him on the path to South Korea's highest office.

Through his involvement in labor issues, Moon met Roh Moo-hyun. The two ran a law firm together, and when Roh decided to run for president in 2002, Moon helped organize his campaign, becoming Roh's most trusted confidant.

After his election, the new president asked Moon to join his government. The job was so stressful that Moon lost 10 teeth -- an indication of the level of intensity he brought to his work.

Roh served as president for five years through 2008. After he committed suicide in 2009, supporters asked Moon to return to politics to carry on the late president's legacy.

Moon has said his major shortcoming are his seriousness and strict attitude. Those around him describe him as mild-tempered and honest.

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