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Newsmaker: Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s new president

Moon Jae-in’s presidency of South Korea began with admirable pledges to handle an unpredictable and belligerent next-door neighbour, North Korea, and tackle economic problems.

He will also tackle broader regional tensions, China’s outrage at the United States THAAD missile defence system in South Korea and rising fears over that same northern neighbour‘s nuclear programme. But one other challenge may be almost as crucial in determining the success or failure of Moon’s term of office.

The left-leaning new head of state, who once declared the job wasn’t really up his street, must also live up to a vow to avoid the stain of corruption that has polluted South Korea’s political environment for years.

In a striking moment of his post-election press conference in the presidential Blue Room in Seoul, the 64-year-old former human-rights lawyer offered an unequivocal commitment: “I take this office empty-handed and I will leave this office empty-handed.”

If fulfilled, that alone would stand as a worthy achievement after the procession of allegations levelled at his three immediate successors.

Roh Moo-hyun – Moon’s guiding influence – was the first South Korean president to face impeachment, accused of illegal electioneering. The impeachment decision was later overturned, but after leaving office, Roh committed suicide in May 2009 by jumping off a cliff, as an investigation into bribery claims intensified.

Roh’s replacement, Lee Myung-bak, was variously suspected – though never convicted – of tax evasion, nepotism in favour of a brother who went to jail for corruption and irregular property dealing.

Most recently, the country’s first female president, Park Geun-hye, was forced from office and is now imprisoned pending trial after an influence-peddling scandal.

South Korea’s constitutional court voted unanimously in March to remove her from office, prompting her arrest on charges of bribery, abuse of power, coercion and divulging government secrets. She denies any wrongdoing.

If Moon keeps to his word, he will leave his mark on the office. But to do that, he will have to break the mould of dubious ties between government and big, family-owned business empires, or chaebols, while also improving – without betraying weakness – glacial relations with North Korea and its aggressive ruler Kim Jong-un.

In the latter task, he has a strong personal motivation for wanting reconciliation with the north. His parents were refugees from what is now North Korea – the peninsula was divided in an inconclusive settlement of the bloody Korean War in 1953, the year Moon was born – and he has described his powerful desire to take his ageing mother back to her hometown of Hungnam, 300 kilometres east of the capital Pyongyang, where her younger sister is also still alive.

Moon also says he’s willing to meet Kim in Pyongyang if the circumstances are right, as part of his declared mission of seeking conciliation. Sixty-four years after the conflict ended, the armistice remains unsigned and the two countries observe a ceasefire while technically being at war. Little wonder then that more-hawkish South Korean politicians sneer at him for being altogether too friendly to the north, a charge that he dismisses.

Moon, who is the leader of the Democratic Party, won the election in style, seizing 41 per cent of the vote, leaving Park’s conservative Liberty Korea Party and the centrist People’s Party candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo, lagging behind on 24 and 21 per cent respectively.

Despite the comfortable victory, the hard work is to come and will test Moon’s resourcefulness and resolve. He wasted no time in offering a hand of friendship to opponents, saying he would “serve even those who did not support me”.

Those in South Korea demanding change, and the young people who supported Moon will expect effective action on youth unemployment – which is low by many western standards at about 10 per cent, but reflecting a worrying rise – and the economic dominance of the family-run chaebols.

If the lessons of childhood have meaning, Moon may succeed in serving as an incorruptible president. He seems to attach little importance to material possessions and personal enrichment. His parents were poor, his mother strapping him to her back as she sold eggs to supplement his father’s income as a labourer in a prisoner-of-war camp. He has said he would like to end his days back in the area of his parents’ roots, working as an unpaid lawyer.

Moon Jae-in, one of five children, was born on January 24, 1953, on Geoje, an island off the southeastern port of Busan where his parents had settled. They had fled turmoil in the north, but life was hard in the south, too. Moon would queue for American air drops and charity handouts of corn flour and powdered milk.

A bright student, he began studying law at Kyunghee University, but became involved in student activism, leading protests against the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, the father of the woman he has now succeeded as president, and was briefly held in jail.

He was expelled from university, but completed his legal studies. After obligatory military service, he launched a law firm with Roh Moo-hyun, the future president.

They remained close friends until Roh’s suicide. Moon was acting for him legally in his fight against corruption allegations and announced his death on television. Three years later, he wrote: “What does Roh Moo-hyun mean in my life? He really defined my life. [It] would have changed a lot if I hadn’t met him. So he is my destiny.”

When Roh was elected president in 2003, Moon worked for him as a senior aide, becoming known as “shadow of Roh”. Observers found him shy or “ridiculously awkward”, and Moon himself, more comfortable practising law, wrote years later that he always felt ill at ease with political life, “as if wearing clothes that did not fit”.

The bond with Roh evidently persuaded him to follow in his late mentor’s footsteps and put himself forward as a leader. Once elected, he solemnly undertook to be a “president to all people”.

There’s undoubtedly a good deal of idealism in the approach that the new president, married to a woman he met as a student and father to a son and daughter, takes to domestic and international affairs. Critics are sceptical about his abilities and outlook.

Moon, nicknamed Dark King after a character from a Japanese manga series, is about to find out whether his desire to be friends to all amounts to more than fanciful dreaming and can be made to work in a turbulent real word.

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