Moon’s early lessonsA person can show his true self in times of adversity. Moon Jae-in, arrested for leading a student demonstration against the military regime in 1975 as a law student, was popular in the detention center in Seoul. He helped inmates write their appeals and gathered up leftover food to give to minor detainees. He thought of others before himself even in tough times.
His inmates gave him a vase made out of bread wrappers to wish him luck before his court verdict. They asked him to become a good lawyer and stand up for the weak and falsely accused and to never forget his times of adversity. Moon recalled that his prison life taught him valuable lessons. Although he was one of the top graduates of his class at the national judicial training institute, he did not make it onto a list of judges because of his student activism and arrest record. He was approached by several big law firms including Kim & Chang, but he chose to become a human rights lawyer to help ordinary people. He did not forgot the pleas of his fellow inmates.
He stayed altruistic and uncompromising and yet survived the brutal world of politics as an “unpolitical” politician. He believed it is better not to have a will for power if it only serves self interests. Moon was chosen by the people at a time of frustration with prevalent and injustice. He was elected because many believed he would be entirely different from former President Park Geun-hye. The candlelight vigils for Park’s removal helped earn Moon the top executive position.
What would be a civilian revolution to Moon? As senior secretary for civil affairs to former President Roh Moo-hyun in 2005, Moon recommended a book to reporters. It was a travel book on France written by a couple of Chinese intellectuals who were sent to the farms during the Cultural Revolution. They left for Paris with a book in their hands — “Ninety-Three” by French writer Victor Hugo on the revolts in Vendee and Chouannerie, the counter-revolutionary uprisings in 1793 during the French Revolution. The couple visited the sites of upheavals and historical events to brood on the ideals and realities of a revolution by comparing the developments of 18th century France and 20th century China.
In recommending the novel, Moon wrote that it raises the question of what a revolution is and how to view human madness during a revolution. Moon may now be storming ahead with reforms before madness and other base human instincts surface. His drive is underscored by his choices of reform-minded figures for the new government: liberal justice Kim Yi-su as chief justice of the Constitutional Court, student activist-turned-politician Im Jong-seok as the presidential chief of staff, reform-minded professor Chang Ha-sung as chief of staff for policy, left-leaning law scholar Cho Kuk as his senior secretary for civil affairs, consumer movement activist Kim Sang-jo as chairman of the Fair Trade Commission, and Yoon Seok-youl of the independent counsel team that investigated the power abuse scandal of the former president as Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office.
While he was a lawyer, Moon challenged his mentor Ri Young-hee, an iconic intellectual who shaped the modern Korean democracy movement, on his praise for China’s Cultural Revolution. Ri admitted of his fallacy and blamed an “over-infatuation of idealism.” Moon has learned from his teacher to pursue ideals in the context of realism.
A politician should have both the challenging mind of a student and the pragmatism of a merchant. Dissident-turned-President Kim Dae-jung was a good example. Moon has not stopped questioning. And he is working on his horse sense while galloping with his hard-won presidential title. The first thing he did after being sworn in was to establish a presidential committee devoted to creating jobs. He proposed to form a standing consultative body among the government, ruling and opposition parties. He immediately sent special envoys to five major powers to deal with the diplomatic front. He drew a pledge of a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear issue from U.S. President Donald Trump. He selectively balanced his advisory team with conservatives and liberals: Hong Seok-hyun, chairman of the Korean Peninsula Forum, and liberal scholar Moon Chung-in as his special advisors for foreign affairs, national security and unification, and Kim Kwang-doo, who tutored former President Park Geun-hye in economic affairs, as the vice chairman of the National Economic Advisory Council. He will pursue a constitutional amendment by June 2018 after eliciting public opinions. His closest aides left the country in fear of burdening the new president.
Expectations are high for the new administration. But expectations can come down depending on the performance. A divisive society can move forward when opposition opinions are reflected in public policy. More figures from the conservative opposition should be able to participate in the government. The Kim Dae-jung administration fought the financial crisis in late 1990s by recruiting Lee Hun-jae and Yim Chang-yeol from the rival camp of Lee Hoi-chang. General-turned-president Park Chung Hee also hired ministers from the government he had toppled with a coup and another minister from the former administration to head economic affairs.
Moon will inevitably be compared to his impeached and removed predecessor. But once the halo effect dims, he will have to stand objective evaluation by the public. Security and foreign affairs cannot be managed without compromise and cooperation. The journey must be made together from the beginning in order to reach the twin destinations of reform and unity.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 22, Page 35
*The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.