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Moon Jae-in puts a scarf around a statue of a comfort woman in Busan. (Photo taken from Moon's blog)

South Korea's Moon: The man who dares to say no to America

Presidential front-runner riles rivals with talk of engaging with the North

| South Korea

TOKYO -- Unprecedented times are upon South Korea, where for the first time in its history a democratically elected president has been booted from office. As the nation grapples with its problems, many are asking the same question: What lies on the other side of this tumultuous period?  

On Tuesday morning, at 23 minutes past 9, Park Geun-hye appeared at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office. Amid a constellation of camera flashes, the ousted president told journalists she was "sorry to the people" and "will sincerely face the questioning." She then quickly disappeared into the building and hopped into a public elevator.

It was a symbolic moment; as the elevator doors closed, so too, it seemed, did the nine-year reign of two consecutive conservative administrations.

Next in line?

The front-runner in the race to succeed Park is Moon Jae-in, former head of the major opposition Minjoo Party of Korea. Polls show he has a big gap on his rivals.

Moon is not free of controversy. In a book published in January, he said South Korea needs to be able to say no the U.S. The words raised eyebrows stateside when they were quoted in an interview published in The New York Times on March 11.

In 2012, Moon narrowly lost the presidential election to Park. During his campaign, he pledged to seek a summit between the two Koreas in his first year if elected. When he called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a "partner for dialogue," conservative critics slammed him as being a North Korean sympathizer.

Moon's parents hail from what today is North Korea. They were among those who fled to the South Korea after the Korean War erupted in 1950. Moon himself was born during a break in the hostilities. While studying law at university, he devoted himself to the democracy movement. His ideologies landed him in jail during that period, but he went on to pass the bar exam and become a human rights lawyer, defending workers' rights. 

Moon's desire for dialogue with the North is rooted in his belief that if South Korea takes the lead in solving issues on the Korean Peninsula, it will give the country greater leverage in talks with the U.S. and Japan.

The repeated cycles of political corruption in South Korea -- including the recent case involving Park and her longtime confidante -- is a subject Moon often talks about. Corruption persists, Moon argues, because even after South Korea's liberation from Japanese rule all those years ago, the country is still run by pro-Japanese forces disguised as conservatives.

When a local government temporarily removed a statue commemorating "comfort women" set up outside the Japanese consulate general in Busan late last year, Moon attributed it to lingering pro-Japanese sentiment. In January, he visited the statue, which had since been put back, and called on people to join him in "continuing to be interested in the subject and protecting the statue."

Powder keg

On March 13, a group of academics and a left-wing former minister who headed foreign and security policy during the reformist administrations of presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, issued a statement. They called on the government to halt the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, in South Korea. They also urged the interim government to suspend any political decision making.

They pushed for engagement with North Korea under the two presidents who served from 1998 to 2008. Should a reformist win, the North-South relationship and other foreign policy issues will unquestionably be impacted. The Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's largest right-leaning daily, accused them of acting like occupiers giving orders to a defeated nation.

Moon has softened his language from outright opposition to the THAAD deployment to calling it something to be decided by the next government. In a recent report on the presidential election, the U.S. Congressional Research Service said, "On some issues, Moon has adopted a more centrist position." By contrast, the report said those left-wing candidates "support policies toward North Korea, China and Japan that differ in significant ways from U.S. approaches," adding that, "Park's removal from office is likely to have short- and medium-term implications for U.S. interests in Northeast Asia."

With less than 50 days to go before the May 9 election, Washington is scrambling to get a better understanding of who stands where on the various issues. The U.S. representative for the six-party talks on ending Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program requested meetings with the reformist candidates and their campaign officials on the sidelines of the meeting in South Korea.

In a televised debate on March 13, Moon started off by saying the lessons learned from the successes and failures of participatory government -- as the Roh administration was called -- had been carved into his heart. Roh is credited with breaking with authoritarianism, but he lost support due to economic policy failures, such as a sharp fall in property prices. Moon served as Roh's chief secretary, among other important posts.

Roughly a decade later, Moon is primed to take center stage. But these are not easy times for him.

On March 12, two days after Park was impeached, Moon's face was unusually rigid as he stood before journalists. South Korea finds itself caught between the U.S. and a China angered by the THAAD issue. If Moon fails to deliver on his primary goal of creating a "fair" society, he may fall victim to the same public anger that toppled Park.

Moon looked like a man aware of the stakes and feeling the pressure.


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