Talk Asia

From North Korean refugee parents to the Blue House: meet South Korean president Moon Jae-in

Mr. Moon Jae-in, the president-elect, greets supporters after his victory was confirmed on the presidential election on May 9, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea.
Meet South Korea's new president Moon Jae-in
07:27 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

South Korean President Moon Jae-in's parents fled from North Korea during the Korean War.

He is a former human rights lawyer, who was jailed for taking part in protests as a student.

Seoul, South Korea CNN  — 

Arriving at the Blue House, the sprawling executive office and residence of the South Korean head of state, brings back memories.

Just a few years ago, CNN was invited to the same room to interview Park Geun-hye – now the first South Korean president to be impeached.

Today, we’re here to meet her successor, President Moon Jae-in.

In stark contrast to Park, who was perceived as “disconnected,” Moon is known as the approachable and humble president. He once said he wanted to be the leader “who could share a glass of soju (a Korean alcohol) with the public after work.”

He arrives dressed in his signature dark suit and tie, his eyes warm and his smile fatherly, greeting the room with the same down-to-earth demeanor he projects to the public.

We talk for over an hour but it’s not until the end of our interview that we pose the vital question: What kind of president do you want to be?

His answer is straightforward, and ambitious.

“The president who achieved a true democracy. The president who built a peaceful relationship between the North and the South. The president who achieved a more equal and fair economy.

“That’s how I want to be remembered.”

North Korean refugee parents

A former special forces soldier and human rights lawyer, Moon was elected into office after winning 41% of the public vote in May.

Younger voters liked his campaign vows to address social inequality and the lack of economic opportunity, but the older generation was disheartened by what they perceived to be his softer stance on Pyongyang.

Still, many South Koreans look to him as a healer, tasked with bringing together a country left reeling from the corruption scandal that ended Park’s political career and heightened tensions between North Korea and the United States.

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Moon Jae-in on North Korea and the United States
07:54 - Source: CNN

The unfolding crisis on the Korean Peninsula strikes a personal note with Moon: his parents were North Korean refugees.

“My parents fled from North Korea during the Korean War because they despised the North Korean Communist regime. They fled to seek freedom and came to South Korea … (they) always longed to go back and reunite with their families.

“However, they were not able to realize this dream.”

The power of the egg

Moon was born on the South Korean island of Geoje, before his family settled in the southern seaside town of Busan.

As a law student in the 1970s, Moon was arrested and jailed after taking part in pro-democracy rallies against the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, the father of Park Geun-hye.

Recalling his days as a student protestor, Moon says: “At that time, people said it was like hitting a stone with an egg, but I still believed in the strength of the egg.”

Moon passed the bar in jail and became a human rights lawyer, fighting for democracy and labor rights while the country was under military rule.

When his good friend and colleague Roh Moo-hyun became president in 2003, Moon joined his administration as chief of staff.

He left Roh’s administration in 2008, only returning to politics after Roh’s suicide amid corruption charges in 2009.

In 2012, Moon made his first bid for the presidency. The opponent he narrowly lost out to? Park Geun-hye.

Pyeongchang 2018

Next February, Moon will host in Pyeongchang one of the biggest sporting events in the world: the Winter Olympics.

It will be the first Olympics on South Korean soil since the Seoul Summer Games three decades ago.

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Moon Jae-in reflects on his early days and looks to the future
07:23 - Source: CNN

“In 1988, the Summer Olympics were held in Korea which was a divided country … It was an opportunity for the East and the West to come together in harmony and also take a significant role in ending the Cold War era.”

The 1988 games featured the largest ever number of participating nations during the Cold War era, although North Korea and Cuba stayed away.

Moon says he’s hoping that the Pyeongchang Olympics will ease tensions with North Korea.

“I hope North Korea will also participate which will provide a very good opportunity for inter-Korean peace and reconciliation,” he says.

While some are concerned about security amid the escalating tensions with North Korea, Moon stressed that there is no need to worry about safety, calling South Korea one of the safest places in the world.

A spot of gardening

After a while, we suggest going for a stroll with the president in the Blue House gardens.

It was there, in the midst of the well-kept greenery, that we passed a group of visitors touring the compound – the Blue House is open to the public.

As Moon entered their line of vision, there was screaming and a rush of bodies towards the president.

Despite the worried looks on his bodyguards’ faces, he greeted the crowd happily, giving out hugs and shaking hands with the group.

He even suggested taking a selfie.

“So, that happens every day?” we ask.

“Yes,” he says, as we walked away, his fans in the distance screaming, “I love you!” and “You’re so cool!”

“When the visitors and I bump into each other, we take pictures, people also like that they get to meet the president,” he explains. “The structure of the Blue House separates (government) from people … so I try to lower the wall of security. I have been making efforts in approaching the people and to be with people.”

Man of the people

Son of North Korean refugees. Former human rights lawyer. Student protestor. Moon has been down many walks of life.

As he attempts to mend South Korea’s relationship with the North, Moon says he believes the success of his administration lies in communicating with the people of South Korea.

“In that, I believe, is a way to unite the Republic of Korea and heal the wounds of the people.”

Does he have any role models for good political communication?

“Barack Obama,” he tells us.

It’s not a bad comparison.

CNN’s Taehoon Lee, KJ Kwon and freelancer Jake Kwon contributed to this article.