Seoul (AsiaNews/Agencies) – President Moon Jae-in is the son of refugees from North Korea who fled south as a result of the Korean War (1950-1953). A Catholic, his baptismal name is Timothy. Active in the student movement in his youth, he is a law graduate from Kyung Hee University in Seoul.
Involved in human rights issues with Roh Moo-hyun, he became Roh’s adviser and chief of staff when the latter served as South Korea’s president between 2003 and 2008. He received the presidential nomination for the Democratic United Party in 2012 but lost to Park Geun-hye. He was elected last month after Park was removed for corruption. He is the second Catholic to be elected to the presidency after Kim Dae-jung who won the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize.
The new South Korean president’s biography is full of details about his background, but the real surprise is his personality, which, just a month after his election, has already led international observers to talk about the Moon style.
Following an unprecedented simple inauguration ceremony in the lobby of the National Assembly, Moon mingled unhesitatingly with ordinary citizens and parliamentary employees for photo and handshakes before boarding the presidential limousine.
Whilst commuting from his apartment in western Seoul for several days due to renovations of the presidential residence, Moon also posed with a big smile with his neighbours for cameras every morning.
Additional videos of the president and his secretaries sitting at a round table for lunch, grabbing a cup of coffee and taking a walk together at the Cheong Wa Dae (Blue House), the presidential compound in Seoul, further impressed the general public.
On a recent day, Moon first approached and greeted children on a field trip to the Cheong Wa Dae, and waited patiently as a child took a notebook from a bag to get his autograph.
Once in office, he asked to pay for his personal and family expenses, greatly reducing the presidential budget and allocating the savings for the poor and the unemployed. As president, he intends to continue to fight for civil rights.
Although small, such acts are significant for Moon’s change of direction, which he announced during the electoral campaign, namely an end to authoritarian presidential attitudes and greater attention to communication with citizens.
In a survey conducted by Gallup on 1,004 adults from 30 May to 1st June, 84 per cent of respondents said they thought that Moon was “doing a good job”. The previous record was set by then-President Kim Young-sam at the start of his mandate in 1993 at 83 per cent.
Moon’s break with positional authority appears to stem from his belief that his function is to serve the people.
Indeed, in a break with the protocol, rank-and-file soldiers, wounded by border-area land mines, were seated next to the president at a Memorial Day ceremony on 6 June. Previously those seats were occupied by heads of the four branches of government.
At a press briefing, presidential spokesman Park Soo-hyun announced that the presidential protocol would be changed at future national events.
Moon has also ordered that the presidential security service to be overhauled in a “friendly, open and low-profile manner”.
Moon’s office also announced that it would do away with hierarchical stereotypes at the president’s meeting with senior secretaries.
Under previous administrations, most secretaries were usually busy writing down the president’s words and instructions. Now, they are casually dressed and discussing state affairs.
Moon’s efforts to communicate directly with the media are also noteworthy. His predecessor, Park Geun-hye, rarely visited Cheong Wa Dae’s press office, except for her new year’s press conference.
By contrast, Moon has already visited the office three times over the past month, a step welcomed by many but not without risks.
“If President Moon’s departure from authoritarian rule can overhaul the entire government’s organisational culture and improve productivity, it will be very helpful to state affairs. Otherwise, the president can be criticised for being overly concerned with image,” said a professor at a Seoul university cited by Yonhap.
This challenge compounds those that await him in foreign relations. Moon has opted to restart the dialogue with North Korea and show more independence from the United States with which he plans to renegotiate the THAAD missile system. The latter has badly affected South Korea’s relations with its main trading partner, China.