Moon Jae-in has had a spicy start to his five-year term as South Korean president. Ten months in he has already seen his next-door neighbour Kim Jong-un and US president Donald Trump ratchet up the rhetoric, test each other’s resolve and push the peninsula towards nuclear war. You might think, then, that the presidential compound in Seoul would be a fortress manned by frenetic staff, rushing around while keeping one eye on the nearest nuclear bunker. But life inside Cheong Wa Dae (also known as the Blue House for the colour of its roof tiles) is quite the opposite. Staff seem blissfully unaware of the nearest safe place to hide and the closest thing to a frenzied stampede is a hoard of hungry workers pouring into the staff canteen at 08.30 – where the president is sometimes known to join them.
On this particular Monday, President Moon reports for official duty at 9.00. Appearing alone on the third floor he passes a single, slight security guard – a friendly woman with no visible firearms – before entering his office. A grey cardigan sits on a clothes rack next to his desk, where a pair of leather grey slippers awaits. “The first thing I do when I wake up is give some food to my cat Jjing-jjing and then we watch the news together,” says the pet-loving leader, who is 65 and known to stay up late reading official papers. “And then I take my dog for a walk.”
The preternaturally relaxed South Korean president begins his official day with a cup of tea and a catch-up with his closest advisers. These so-called “tea time” meetings, all smiles today, must have been more frantic affairs during the latter half of 2017 when relations between the US and North Korean leaders seemed to be reaching a tipping point. Moon deserves plenty of credit for restoring calm; he has taken over inter-Korean dialogues from Washington and Beijing in what is seen as his first major success in international affairs. “My goal is to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue and solidify peace while I am in office,” he says optimistically, though he stops short of suggesting immediate reunification.
For now Pyongyang is back at the negotiating table, relations with China have been patched up after the deployment of a US missile defence system on Korean soil and the White House is just at the other end of a telephone. US relations are “rock-solid” and “as strong and robust as ever”, Moon says, unwilling to be drawn on whether waking up to a Trump tweet makes him twitch more than a Pyongyang missile test. “President Trump said that I could notify him at any time if help was needed in the process of carrying out inter-Korean dialogue and that he supported me 100 per cent.”
Post-Olympics anything could happen, of course. The peninsula and the region continue to skate on thin ice and a sudden return of North Korean nuclear antics would embarrass Moon, who pushed for Pyongyang’s sporting involvement in the Winter Games. Moreover, the next step – engaging in military talks about the North’s nuclear disarmament – is a world away from the two Koreas fielding a joint ice-hockey team. But for the time being Moon is concentrating on domestic issues and he has plenty of campaign promises to fulfil, from constitutional reform to cleaning up corruption.
Moon swept into office last year after a wave of public protests led to the ousting of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who is now standing trial on corruption charges. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Koreans from across the political spectrum joined mass candlelit demonstrations, horrified by allegations against Park. Moon behaves like the rightful heir of this movement – a large artwork commemorating the events was installed at Cheong Wa Dae. Moon won the youth vote and he is launching a series of positive measures, such as incentivising small businesses to employ more young people, cutting working hours and increasing opportunities to buy a house. Granted, his administration is not entirely in step with young Koreans, flip-flopping in the face of a backlash against plans to ban bitcoin and stop teaching English in nurseries. Meanwhile, the practising Catholic’s opposition to same-sex marriage, voiced during an election debate, alienated some. But ultimately his candidacy offered the exact opposite of his predecessor: accessible not aloof, liberal rather than conservative, and a hard-working striver in place of the privileged daughter of a former president who grew up in the Blue House and rarely stepped out as leader.
Part of Moon’s appeal, beyond his outsider status and good looks that have earned him a K-pop-style fan club in China, are the similarities his life story has with the country’s bittersweet development. Born to refugee parents who fled south during the Korean war, the young Moon shone at law school, was locked up for student activism during the martial-law era, served in the special forces during mandatory military service and then went on to become a human rights lawyer. “My experience just shows how dynamic Korea’s modern history is,” says an ever-modest Moon who doesn’t see anything prophetic in his CV. “Many Koreans went through the experiences of war and poverty and felt the despair of division of the two Koreas and the loss of their homeland.”
On the whole Moon remains something of a reluctant politician and in public office he is known to closely guard his two grown children’s privacy. “I wouldn’t have imagined running for president in the past,” he says with an easy smile. When asked to choose between being president or chief of staff – as he was for five years for President Roh Moo-hyun – he picks the liberty he enjoyed before both jobs. After his stint as chief of staff, he returned to his hometown of Yangsan, near Busan, refusing calls to run for president. The turning point came in 2009 with the deaths of two successive progressive presidents – Nobel peace-prize winning Kim Dae-jung and close friend Roh – who led Korea consecutively until 2008. This was followed by nine years of back-to-back conservative rule. “The development of our democracy, the enhancement of our human rights and the development of inter-Korean relations were all set back,” says Moon, who attributes greater national significance to the deaths beyond the loss of two ex-presidents. “I felt a sense of crisis and I couldn’t just look the other way.”
A narrow loss to Park in 2012 by just three percentage points cemented his conviction. Long-serving staff report seeing a changed man ahead of the 2017 election and political rivals report a much slicker and savvy campaign team, which ultimately paid off.
Avid supporters are at pains to emphasise the break with the past. Two large Samsung flat-screen television mounted on the wall (and an LG model standing idly nearby) are the only adornments of value in his modest corner office. One monitor shows the latest employment figures. A line graph on the other screen shows the average number of working hours. Jobs are the primary focus of the Moon administration, although he wants employment to go up and notoriously long working days to come down. “The era when the key to success is working non-stop is over,” says Moon, who worked himself into ill health in the past. He’s not alone. “Since my inauguration I have taken annual leave and encouraged my secretaries and cabinet ministers to follow suit. I will continue to do this.” He does admit, however, to having failed to take all of his leave last year – a target he has set for himself again this year.
The South Korean economy has proved remarkably robust in the face of Chinese boycotts and US tariffs, buoyed by record years for the aforementioned electronics giants. Later this year, Goldman Sachs expects South Korea to join the official ranks of developed economies, when average incomes reach $30,000 (€24,000), up from just $300 (€242) when Moon entered university in the 1970s. Achieving this milestone adds another chapter to the so-called economic miracle on the Han River. Prosperity has come at a cost, though, and has pushed the debate about quality of life up the political agenda. “There is a pile of reform bills and other bills that have to be passed to improve the lives of ordinary people,” says Moon. Yet he has his work cut out for him, as it will take opposition co-operation to pass legislation.
“The political interests of the ruling and opposition parties cannot precede the country and the people,” he says, defaulting to the popular mandate that he believes he has received from the flickering masses who took to the streets in support of democracy. “I expect that the opposition will co-operate in a bipartisan manner to improve the standard of living of ordinary people.” Yet as the one-year mark of his time in office draws closer, Moon must make sure that his presidential term doesn’t pass with only a few symbolic gestures to show for it.
He says the goal of his administration now is to change the way state affairs are run, not just clean up past mistakes, so that the political pendulum can’t simply swing back in time come 2022. A strong indication of his likely success or failure will come in June when Moon has pledged to conduct a referendum on constitutional reform. Limiting executive power, increasing devolution to local governments and boosting human rights would be the first constitutional amendment since the country went through a difficult transition to democracy in 1987. Moon has expressed a willingness to force through measures if by March the National Assembly can’t agree on a bill to be put to a national vote. “The country will not accept politics returning to what it was like in the past,” he says. “We recognised the power of conscientious citizens during the candlelight revolution and I am certain that the political circle will not be able to go against the collective power of the people.”
The First Lady has found popularity through her support of the disadvantaged and the changing role of women.
One evening, several weeks into President Moon’s presidency, his wife Kim Jung-sook walked along the road that runs in front of Cheong Wa Dae to declare the end of a curfew that had for decades prevented the public from using the heavily guarded 400-metre road at night. Her symbolic stroll, hand in hand with local residents, neatly captured the new administration’s accessibility and cemented the First Lady’s position as a light in the darkness.
Before the election Kim picked up a cheery reputation during weekly trips to key areas to shore up support for Moon, who faced stronger leftist and centrist competition in places following the collapse of the political right. “Politics is about being attentive to the people so I set out on a journey to meet with them,” she says. “When I showed my sincerity the people opened their heart.” Victory secured, she is now fond of inviting underprivileged groups for tea at the Blue House. This common touch has seen her popularity soar.
Yet the classically trained opera singer takes every opportunity to deflect any credit or attention to her husband. South Korean society remains strongly conservative and traditional family roles are modernising at a snail’s pace. The electorate is, moreover, highly sensitive to any whiff of undue influence over an elected official. Breaking new ground inside the Blue House is a difficult path to tread but for now the First Lady seems to be taking the country with her.
Monocle: What was your reaction to your husband’s decision to run for president in 2012?
Kim Jung-sook: Anxious at first. I didn’t want him to take on another demanding job after he’d worked so hard as chief of staff. And I felt his honesty and upright character was not a good fit for success in politics. But I tried to put my personal interests to one side because so many people were suffering and our democracy was going backwards.
M: What did the candlelight vigils mean to you?
KJ-S: The way they proceeded was unprecedented: ordinary citizens, calmly going about their daily business during the week and then erupting on weekends. A crowd of a million people in Seoul Plaza with no leadership and yet no physical violence for a whole three months. I’m fully aware that my husband’s administration was born out of these public displays of support for our democracy and I feel a great sense of responsibility.
M: What example can he set for gender equality?
KJ-S: One of his campaign pledges was to fill 30 per cent of his cabinet with women so I was pleased to see that promise fulfilled from the very beginning. Female ministers are now in charge of six ministries for the first time and that includes foreign affairs. But there is still much to be done concerning women’s issues, such as discrimination in society, including wages and opportunities. Now many women are doing all they can to be recognised on the basis of their ability. I will do my part as well.
M: Do you give advice to the president?
KJ-S: I believe my role is to help him stay true to his original intentions and I also try my best to expose him to different opinions that he may not have been previously aware of. I pay a lot of attention to those who are marginalised and discriminated against, as well as to women’s issues.
M: Do you have any political or career aspirations of your own?
KJ-S: Running for public office won’t happen in my lifetime. After my husband has successfully completed his tenure, I am looking forward to the day when we return to the countryside.