Few incoming leaders have been dealt a tougher hand than Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, who took office in May. To begin with, there was the problem of restoring public trust after the corruption scandals that wrecked the administration of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye. Meanwhile, the country’s biggest neighbor, China, had imposed an economic and diplomatic freeze in February, following Seoul’s decision to deploy the U.S.-made THAAD missile defense system. And if that wasn’t enough, in April North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had begun to accelerate his reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons, spurring a global crisis.
Yet Moon immediately became a unifying figure in a politically scarred country, reaching — if only for a while — unprecedented heights of popularity; although he won just over 40 percent of the vote, his approval rate hit 75 percent in his first month. His soft-spoken approach and openness were in stark contrast to Park’s secretiveness, corruption, and creeping authoritarianism. In light of the journalistic activism that brought down his predecessor, Moon has pledged to run an open government and moved to shrink the power of the country’s overweening corporate conglomerates, known as chaebol, through greater transparency and harsher punishments for financial crimes. “I will be a president that can share a glass of soju [rice liquor] with the public after work,” he told reporters, emphasizing the difference between his attitude and the paranoid closeness of Park’s inner circle. His political flexibility has already paid dividends: Though he had previously publicly opposed THAAD, he nevertheless managed to bridge the rift with Beijing without sacrificing the country’s defense options by patient diplomatic efforts.
But Moon’s handling of North Korea is what has put him in the spotlight — and even though no easy solution is in sight, his forceful push for peace has offered a welcome alternative to the saber rattling in Pyongyang and Washington.
Before his election, many critics thought Moon would go wobbly in the face of threats from the North. His previous stint in a ruling government was as chief of staff for Roh Moo-hyun, who was president from 2003 to 2008 and who pushed the “Sunshine Policy,” which sought to open up Pyongyang through a combination of engagement and inducements. That policy was widely, if perhaps unfairly, deemed a failure by both the South Korean public and international experts.
A lesser leader might have tried to allay such fears with tough rhetoric, but since taking office, Moon has stuck to his positions on dialogue. Despite Pyongyang’s provocations, Moon hasn’t wavered in his position that talks with the North are vital. That has meant ignoring or countering both the hawkish rumblings from Donald Trump and the complaints of South Korean conservatives. Moon claims total opposition to another war on the Korean Peninsula and veto power over any potential U.S. interventions — a suggestion the White House has disputed. As a growing number of South Koreans call for the country to acquire its own nuclear weapons, he has declared that while a nuclear North couldn’t be “accepted or tolerated,” the South would never acquire its own weapons either.
Moon laid out his own road map to peace on the peninsula in July as part of a wide-ranging policy agenda. His vision of denuclearization by 2020 may seem utopian as Pyongyang screws miniaturized warheads to intercontinental ballistic missiles. “It’s a long shot, but North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal is a tough problem that requires a big, bold solution,” says nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis. “It’s not like ‘being realistic’ has worked out much better.”
Moon’s pacifist leanings are the product of both faith and experience. He began his career as a democracy activist when South Korea was still a dictatorship and, like many in the movement, is a practicing Christian. His determination to seek peace echoes his beliefs as a devout Catholic, as does his commitment to public service and his social conservatism. As a young lawyer in the 1970s, he risked giving up one of the most powerful and prestigious career paths then available in the country — fewer than 100 people were admitted to the bar every year at the time — in order to fight for human rights and democracy.
When it comes to talking with Kim Jong Un, Moon certainly knows more about dealing with a dictatorship than his counterpart in the United States. His parents fled from the North as refugees. As he wrote in his book published in January: “When peaceful reunification comes, the first thing I want to do is to take my 90-year-old mother and go to her hometown.”
James Palmer is Asia editor at Foreign Policy.
Moon was conscripted as a special forces soldier and served in a critical operation in the demilitarized zone at the border with North Korea in 1976.