Moon Jae-in is way more badass than he looks.
He’s the seemingly milquetoast 59-year-old, gray-haired candidate for the Democratic United Party, the current left-wing opposition. His main opponent is Park Geun-hye, a conservative who isâand this is where it gets awesomeâthe daughter of Korea’s former military dictator-president, Park Chung-hee, who reigned when Moon was arrested as a bright-eyed university law student protesting in Seoul against President Park’s Yushin constitutional revisions in 1972.
Let me hammer that point in for a second: Moon has fought Park’s family line for two full generations. From the horse’s mouth: [Park Geun-hye] and I were both born in the year of the dragon but we have lived totally different lives… When I was living [in] poverty she was living the life of a princess in the Blue House. When I was fighting against dictatorship, she was at the heart of it.
That’s a rare road to take in one’s political journey, and earns Moon points for being able to honestly say that he stands by his beliefs.
Strange, then, that he’s also this year’s unluckiest presidential candidate. Before he announced his candidacy officially in mid-September, he was totally overshadowed by Ms. Park in the media, who had already been on the trail for a month. Two days after his announcement, Ahn Cheol-soo, the popular independent software millionaire, stole his thunder by announcing his own candidacy. Even when Moon won the DUP primaries and nothing else was happening, no one seemed to care.
But Moon represents a much-needed contingent that neither Ahn nor Park fulfill, and has been gaining polling points since his relatively slow start in the race. He may very well win. So let’s take a closer look:
Who is this guy?
Moon was born on Geoje Island in 1953 to a poverty-stricken North Korean father and rural mother. He began protesting in Seoul as a law student before moving to Busan to set up a human rights law practice alongside a pre-presidential Roh Moo-hyun. I didn’t even have the faintest idea that this encounter would lead to my destiny, he later wrote in his 2012 biography, The Destiny of Moon Jae-in, which would become his de-facto political platform.
Moon and Roh became lifelong friends. When Roh was elected president, Moon served as his chief of staff. So close was their bond that when Roh famously committed suicide in 2009 amidst rumors of illegitimate money dealings, Moon was forced to adopt public exposure previously hidden beneath Roh’s massive personality. Party insiders began murmuring about Moon’s abilities to lead, and so his political entrance was marked.
Where does he fit in?
Once chosen as the candidate, Moon emphasized that he would finish Roh’s work from nearly five years ago: he would fight for the lower classes against the country’s corrupt rich, expand welfare benefits, and protect small businesses against the family-run chaebol giants like Samsung and Hyundai.
He also promised to create over one million jobs by limiting working weeks to 52 hours. He would raise the minimum wage and focus on equal opportunity employment; to hammer in his citizens first philosophy, he just recently released a series of Yes We Can-esque posters that read, People come first.
And then there’s North Korea. Moon would try to reinstate Roh’s Sunshine Policy, a stance that dictated kindness rather than sternness towards the ROK’s northern neighbor. (The Sunshine Policy, initially started by Roh predecessor, Kim Dae-jung was called a failure and scrapped by Lee Myung-bak’s administration, which has coincided with strained terms with NK but also saved a bunch of cash.)
All this is well and good… if you liked Roh. The late president is typically criticized for his xenophobic, socialist and anti-capitalist tendencies (to use the extreme phrasing), which led to things like increased welfare costs and less international cooperation.
Who would vote for him?
This is unquestionably Moon’s biggest problem. Park and the Saenuri Party have roughly half the country’s vote, mostly older generations. And although Moon has historically been a youthful freedom fighter, he’s now bordering 60 and frankly emits a dated, professorial air; Ahn Cheol-soo, meanwhile, who’s only nine years his junior but looks way younger, is stirring the political pot on Twitter and has the whole independent, politically-disenchanted vote going for him, which is what Moon needs to win.
Moon’s only unmovable supporters are Roh’s former supporters, which is, again, only half of the DUP, which is itself maybe 35-40 percent of the country. So let’s peg him at a solid 20-ish percent overall and understand that that’s not good enough to win an election.
And let’s not forget that a lot of people disliked Roh’s administration. Moon’s public admiration of the man will undoubtedly stigmatize him, costing a lot of votes. Quoting journalist Lee Ji-eun: At a time when he needs to be getting past Ahn, and eventually the New Frontier Party’s Park Geun-hye, he is still overshadowed by Rohâs presence.
What’s his next move?
There are two steps here. The first is surpassing Ahn, the second is Park.
Everyone knows the left shouldn’t have two candidates, lest the liberal vote end up being split between the two thus ensuring a win for Park. There’s no shortage of rumors buzzing over whether Ahn will join the DUP, or Moon will back down and concede to his more popular opponent. But one of those scenarios (or something similar) has gotta happen or else the liberals will frankly just lose.
To beat Park will be even tougher. Moon’s greatest strength and worst weakness are one and the same: his steadfast political stance. It caused Moon a lot of strife to get the DUP nomination in the first place, and now the stakes are higher. It’s true that he’s been on a bit of a roll lately in the polls, but now he needs to keep it going with pure old-fashioned campaigning: door-knocking, mail-outs, whatever it takes.
South Korea Presidential Primer: Who are the Candidates?