Saturday, November 17, 2012

Korea's Presidential Election - Part II: Moon Jae-in

Part II of this series will discuss Moon Jae-in, candidate from the Democratic United Party.

Moon Jae-in (Democratic United Party)
Moon Jae-in [문재인]
Moon Jae-in is one of the two chief rivals against Park Geun-hye in the upcoming presidential election. And like Park, Moon's political identity is tied to a polarizing figure of the past -- i.e. his old boss and closest friend, former president Roh Moo-hyun.

Moon is a National Assemblyman of the Democratic United Party, the progressive minority party of the National Assembly. He represents Busan's Sasang-gu. Moon Jae-in was born in 1953 in Geoje, an island in the southeastern coast of Korea. Moon was born in a refugee camp toward the end of Korean War. (Moon's parents was from Heungnam, North Korea.) His family later moved to Busan, where Moon spent most of his childhood.

The seeds of Moon's entry into politics were sown the same way as most progressive politicians of Korea -- as a student activist. Moon entered Kyunghee University in 1972, when the tyranny of Park Chung-hee dictatorship reached its height. In October 17, 1972, Park declared martial law; two months later, Park unveiled the new "constitution" that essentially made him a lifetime president who can disband the legislature and suspend constitutional protections at any time. As one of the leaders of Kyunghee's student government, Moon organized and led protests against Park Chung-hee's dictatorship. For his activism, Moon was arrested and imprisoned numerous times.

Moon passed the bar in 1980. (He learned that he passed in the bar while being held in prison.) In 1982, he graduated second in class from the Judicial Training and Research Institute, which meant that he should have been appointed as a judge. But the court -- under the thumb of Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship at the time -- passed on Moon due to his history of activism. Moon would then enter into private practice by joining a law office in Busan. The managing partner of the law office was a man named Roh Moo-hyun.

At the beginning of his practice, Roh was a tax attorney who earned enough for a very comfortable life. (His hobbies included yachting.) But by the time Moon joined the firm, Roh was considered one of the leading legal minds for the democratization movements, thanks to his pro bono representation of 22 Busan-area activists who were beaten, waterboarded and electrocuted for as long as 63 days. With Roh Moo-hyun, Moon Jae-in primarily represented democracy and labor activists. Even after Roh entered into politics in 1988, Moon took over the practice and continued to work as a civil rights attorney. Although Roh pestered Moon for more than a decade to join him in politics, Moon did not enter into politics until 2002, when Roh was elected president. Moon joined Roh Moo-hyun's Blue House, eventually serving as Roh's chief of staff.

After the rocky presidency of Roh ended in 2007, Moon returned to his law practice. When Roh committed suicide in 2009, Moon directed Roh's funeral, and later chaired the Roh Moo-hyun memorial foundation. In 2011, Moon published a very well-received autobiography, Moon Jae-in's Destiny [문재인의 운명]. Finally, in April 2012, Moon officially entered into popular politics by winning a National Assembly seat. Despite being a relative newcomer, Moon swept the DUP's presidential primaries, muscling aside the grizzled veterans of progressive electoral veterans.

As evident from Moon's biography, Moon's political identity is inseparable from Roh Moo-hyun. And as with his rival Park Geun-hye, this association both benefits and damages Moon's candidacy because, as with Park Chung-hee, Roh Moo-hyun was a polarizing figure.

If one measured Korea's presidents only by the capacity to cause polarizing reactions, Roh's presidency is right up there with Park Chung-hee's dictatorship. With his charisma and speech-making abilities, Roh inspired a passionate group of supporters who eventually made him president. (Roh Moo-hyun was likely the first Korean politician to have a self-generated fan club.) Yet through his rash and divisive governing style that demonized his opponents, Roh created an equal number of opponents who passionately revile him. Roh is almost certainly the most hated president among the Korea's right-leaning voters. Even among many left-leaning voters, Roh is not fondly regarded because of his political tactics that excluded a broader spectrum of Korea's left in favor of dedicated followers, somewhat like the way in which the smaller Tea Party managed to set the direction for the U.S. Republican Party.

This is the political landscape that Moon Jae-in is facing: passionate opposition from conservatives who see him as Roh Moo-hyun's heir, and mostly lukewarm support from his progressive base. This is the greatest reason why Ahn Cheol-soo -- the subject of the next part -- has been able to create such a sensation.

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  1. Didn't Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo agree that there will only be one candidate opposing Park Geun-hye? If so, when will they decide who of them actually goes into elections? And how is this issue going to be decided?

    Also, do you know of any recent opinion polls on presidential elections? Wikipedia has a lot page on the subject but it's awfully outdated - the last polls are from July...

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  3. Their negotiations were broken down. Ahn has decided to give up his candidacy. It is told that the reason for his decision rather than resulting in what is so called "a beatiful unification" is partly attributed to Moon's conservative attitude toward political renovation which Ahn has proposed. However, Ahn has recently agreed to support Moon in every way he can to accomplish the change of regime.

    Opinion polls vary over organizations, but all of them shows Park is leading around 3~7% over Moon.


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