May 10, 2017 12:40 am JST

Once-jailed activist now president of South Korea

Son of North Korean refugees, Moon Jae-in promises to 'invest in people'

MITSURU OBE, Nikkei staff writer

Moon Jae-in -- the son of North Korean refugees, the college student who was arrested for leading a protest against the country's authoritarian government, the former aide to a president who worked toward rapprochement with the communist North -- has claimed victory in South Korea's presidential election.

For many, Moon, a 64-year-old former human rights lawyer, is another Roh Moo-hyun, a lawyer friend and left-leaning politician who served as South Korea's president from 2003 to 2008, before killing himself in 2009. Moon served as Roh's top aide and oversaw a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in 2007.

Moon grew up in a poverty stricken household in Busan. But his fortitude landed him at an elite high school.

Later, as a university student, Moon was once jailed for leading an uprising against dictator Park Chung-hee, the father of recently impeached President Park Geun-hye.

He was in prison when he received a letter notifying him that he had passed South Korea's bar exam.

Moon ran for president in 2012 but lost to Park.

He and his Democratic Party, South Korea's main opposition, have a decidedly progressive political agenda. Moon has vowed to reverse Park's confrontational policy toward Pyongyang in favor of Roh's so-called "Sunshine Policy," which sought rapprochement with the North through dialogue and commerce.

Moon believes that economic sanctions will not deter North Korea from chasing its nuclear and missile ambitions, and that dialogue needs to be held with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un.

He has also called for Seoul to be more independent from Washington, which guarantees the country's security.

In a book published in January, Moon said South Korea needs to be able to say no the U.S. He is now calling for a review of the recent deployment of a U.S. defense system in South Korea designed to counter possible North Korean missile attacks. His concern is that the THAAD installation will fan already heightened tensions with Pyongyang and Beijing.

Moon indulged his populist side during the campaign, proposing a government spending spree to create jobs as well as to improve education, child care and health care.

Blasting the conglomerate-friendly policies of the current conservative government as "trickle down" economics, Moon has said he would invest more in people rather than big companies. He has yet to spell out how he might pay for a spending binge, except to say that the nation's super-rich and large corporations would be targeted.

"I will change the economic structure to one centered on the people, in which the government will invest in people, who will then improve the competitiveness of companies and the country," Moon said last month at party headquarters.

For Japan, Moon could be a difficult negotiating partner. He opposes a 2015 agreement with Tokyo that puts to rest the so-called "comfort women" issue. Moon wants to renegotiate the accord to include an official apology from Tokyo and and admission of legal responsibility.

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