Moon Jae-in enters the South Korean presidency amid a tough economy and a political scandal of the highest degree in his country. However, the main focus of his campaign was relations with North Korea. If you look at Moon’s past, you might well understand why North Korea is such an important issue for him. The son of refugees from the North, he witnessed first-hand the brutality and irrationality that can often characterizes North Korean leaders and commanders. It’s been called the “axe murder incident” and it’s certainly brutal enough to have had a significant impact on Moon Jae-in.
In 1976, when he was serving in South Korea’s special forces (all Korean men serve in the military for two years), two American soldiers set out to trim a tree. The tree was located in the Korean demilitarized zone and had grown branches that obscured the line of sight between the two sides. Both sides agreed that pruning action was needed, and the Americans set out with axes in hand. North Korea sent soldiers to the tree, but not to help. The soldiers murdered the Americans with their own axes. The commander of the U.N. forces in South Korea ordered a small battalion of South Korean soldiers to cut down the entire tree, in a symbolic act of strength.
Moon Jae-in was one of those soldiers.
You could imagine him taking a hard line against the North after that experience, but Moon Jae-in is left of center. He favors dialogue and he wants to make peace. He takes a broad view of history to inform his politics, “The North and South were one people sharing one language and one culture for about 5,000 years. Ultimately, we should reunite.”
Indeed, he is also a human rights lawyer and takes a sympathetic stance on protecting the futures of the North Korean people. He states that he “hates” the North Korean system but sympathizes with the people who live under the oppressive regime. His family, after all, once hailed from the North. Reunification is ultimately the goal of many on both sides of the table.
Turning to the economy, it’s no secret that President Moon Jae-in has won strong approval from his people on this front. That may be due to the fact that he’s done a lot to help eradicate corruption. His self-imposed challenge toward this goal: taking on chaebol.
In case you’re not familiar with the term, it refers to essentially family-owned empires which, in South Korea, tend to rule the economy. Everybody’s heard of Samsung and Hyundai; they are perfect examples of chaebol. Their founding families hold onto decision-making roles and have become very adept at preserving their wealth.
This agenda, which targets chaebol, dovetails nicely with fixing what drove his predecessor out of office: corruption. Former President Park Geun-hye was ousted after allegations of bribery and influence peddling by chaebol organizations.
One way Moon aims to accomplish this is to grant more power to the country’s fair trade regulator. That will enable the position to impose harsher punishments on chaebol companies that interfere in government affairs.
Another tactic will be to change the way the national pension fund behaves in regards to the chaebol. With around $530 billion in assets, it’s the top investor in a lot of the chaebols out there. With that kind of heavy-hitting power, Moon aims to leverage the fund to shore up minority shareholders as well as public interests.
Other achievements include scrapping the idea of forcing schools to use state-issued history textbooks, which mitigated the oppressive rule of his predecessor’s father. He also adopted a dog, to highlight his stance against the trade and consumption of dog meat. His policies aim to steer the country away from nuclear and coal sources of energy. All of these policies are viewed favorably by a great number of South Koreans.
Economic policy and reform achievements aside, one area that will continue to dominate the Moon agenda is relations with North Korea. As Moon Jae-in continues his campaign promises that he made during the May 2017 election, there are some troubling assessments that have to be made. For example, Moon Jae-in promised to suspend THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) due to environmental and political concerns. The response? The United States and Japan were infuriated and threatened to sever the diplomatic ties with South Korea.
Moon Jae-in entered into a geopolitical dilemma: reap economic benefits from the United States and Japan or pursue reconciliation efforts to avoid North Korea’s nuclear proliferation? Politicians try to fulfill their campaign promises during but often realize their campaign promises fall short due to politics. Trump taught us one thing about politics during CPAC: “You can’t always get what you want.” This is the reality of politics.