The Korea Herald


Assignments yet to be done


Published : Aug. 9, 2011 - 19:16

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Confidant to late President Roh raises profile as potential opposition standard-bearer

It was supposed to be a gathering of senior civic and religious leaders to call for the merger of liberal and progressive opposition parties in preparation for the parliamentary and presidential elections next year.

But the media focused upon a single person, who remained silent throughout the meeting on July 26, but was believed to have played a key role in bringing together the 21 high-profile participants. When Moon Jae-in emerged out of the meeting, he was immediately surrounded by reporters who showered him with questions on his future moves ― especially whether he would run in the presidential election. But Moon, looking uncomfortable, left without giving a specific answer.

The bustling scene reflected the growing attention given to the 58-year-old lawyer, whose stature has risen over the last few months. In a national survey of 3,750 voters released Monday by the polling agency Realmeter, 9.8 percent of them chose Moon as their favorite candidate for president. His approval rating was far below the 32.2 percent for Rep. Park Geun-hye, a former chairwoman of the ruling Grand National Party, but ahead of other seasoned politicians including opposition leader Rep. Sohn Hak-kyu, who gained 9.4 percent support.

Known to have a calm and introspective character, Moon appears to feel somewhat awkward and even burdensome with his sudden rise in popular support. “The phenomenon that is occurring is beyond what I really am,” he recently told a local daily, referring to his mounting popularity.

Moon, a lifelong confidant to late President Roh Moo-hyun, has not committed himself to entering politics. He has limited his role to acting as a “catalyst” for merging diverse opposition groups into a single party, which he says is essential to defeat the conservative ruling party in next year’s elections.
Moon Jae-in (Yonhap News) Moon Jae-in (Yonhap News)

Inseparable ties

Many political observers, however, think Moon will eventually enter the political fray, charged with a self-imposed mission to revitalize the philosophy and policies of Roh, who was criticized for leaning toward populism during his presidency that ended in February 2008.

Since he first met Roh three decades ago, Moon’s life has been inseparable from the political traces and legacy of the president, who jumped to his death in May 2009 amid a prosecutorial investigation into alleged corruptions involving his family and associates. They jointly established a legal practice in Busan in 1982. Moon was a key member of Roh’s campaign for the 2002 presidential election, in which Roh came from behind to defeat GNP candidate Lee Hoi-chang by a narrow margin.

He served as senior presidential secretary for civil affairs for the first year of Roh’s presidency before quitting for health reasons. When Roh was impeached by the GNP-controlled parliament in 2004 on charges of violating political neutrality and mishandling economic affairs, Moon came to his defense. He stood by the president throughout the remainder of Roh’s term in office, serving as chief of presidential staff. When Roh saw his popularity plunging amid economic problems and social conflicts, and was deserted by many of his political colleagues, Moon remained loyal to him.

After President Lee Myung-bak of the GNP took office pledging to dismantle Roh’s legacies, Moon took to a reclusive life in a mountainous village in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang Province. “I felt tired and miserable at the time,” Moon recalled. “Leaving Cheong Wa Dae, I wanted to seek freedom, peace and rest.”

Roh’s suicide, however, pulled him out of seclusion and back into spotlight. He was subjected to a media frenzy hours after Roh died. His reading of a brief statement on the incident in a calm voice left a deep impression on the public.

What sparked the recent dramatic rise in Moon’s public popularity was the publication of his memoir in June, which describes his fatalistic relationship with Roh, who was seven years senior to him. He concludes the book with a sentence that carries an implicit meaning: “You (Roh) are now freed from your destiny but I am bound to the assignments you left.”

Speculations have been rampant about what he intended by the expression. Despite his explanation that it expressed his intention to promote study and discussion on progressive democracy, to which Roh wanted to devote himself after retirement, many commentators have interpreted it as leaving room for political engagement.

His memoir titled “Moon Jae-in’s Destiny” has so far sold more than 150,000 copies, remaining on the best-seller list for weeks. He drew media attention again on July 29 when he attended an event to promote his book, which he had shunned to avoid giving the impression of using it as a stepping stone for full-fledged political activity.

Followers’ aspiration

At the moment, he appears not to have made up his mind on how far he will go in completing the assignments left by Roh. He has said on several occasions that he is not the type of person to pursue a career as a politician. But he has apparently taken gradual steps toward the political stage since the April 27 by-elections, which opposition groups won by fielding unified candidates.

In a departure from his past position of distancing himself from partisan politics, Moon has stressed the need to integrate opposition parties to secure win in the two key elections next year. He recently pledged to assume an active role in the upcoming parliamentary elections to help as many opposition candidates as possible elected from districts in Busan and South Gyeongsang Province where pro-Roh sentiment still runs high.

But he has tantalized his supporters by stopping short of committing himself to running in the parliamentary elections or making a presidential bid. With Moon remaining ambiguous on his eventual political choice, various support groups including one named “People Waiting for President Moon Jae-in” has been launched. Members of a foundation set up to commemorate Roh, which is led by Moon, numbers more than 200,000.

Behind the fervor over Moon is the wish of Roh’s followers to find their new standard-bearer who will be able to lead the opposition to win the parliamentary and presidential elections to be held in April and December 2012, respectively. Their aspiration is mixed with a sense of urgency as opposition figures touted as potential presidential runners have lagged far behind the GNP’s Park, the eldest daughter of late President Park Chung-hee, in a series of opinion polls.

Democratic Party leader Sohn saw his approval rating soar after he won a parliamentary seat in a conservative constituency in April but his support has since remained stagnant as he failed to show determination in handling controversial issues. Rhyu Si-min, who leads a splinter progressive party, has not recovered his political clout after a unified opposition candidate backed by him lost in a parliamentary by-election in Roh’s hometown of Gimhae, South Gyeongsang Province. In contrast, Moon’s support rate has been increasing since he was first included in the list of potential presidential runners by a polling agency on June 15.

According to surveys by Mono Research, Moon’s approval rating, which initially stood at 8.5 percent against 16.5 percent for Sohn, rose to 11.8 percent on July 17 ahead of 11.3 percent for Sohn. Support for Rhyu declined from 8.1 percent to 6.1 percent over the period.

In a recent interview with a local weekly, Moon attributed his rise in approval rating to people’s frustration with the Lee administration and wish for an alternative figure, but said he was not yet ready to reply to a question on his political future.

Many politicians and commentators note Moon has a variety of advantages to serve him if he decides to run for an elected post.

“Moon has a considerable attraction as a politician. He is merited for his ability to integrate people and untarnished morality,” said DP lawmaker Moon Hee-sang, who also served as chief of presidential staff for Roh.

Hailing from a town in the southeastern region, Moon is in a position to help the opposition expand its clout in the area where it has a weaker support base than the ruling party. He was a student activist against Park Chung-hee’s dictatorial rule in the 1970s. When he was conscripted for military duty after being arrested for taking part in an antigovernment protest, he served as a special operations trooper, a rare merit in a country where many political leaders have come under suspicion of evading the mandatory military service.

Moon is also credited for his moral integrity as he has never been involved in a scandal, including when he was in powerful posts at the presidential office.

Real test

But some critics say Moon has yet to go through the real test of his leadership, indicating little is known about his views on diplomatic matters, security, welfare and other key state affairs.

Kang Joon-man, a professor at Chonbuk National University, said Moon’s memoir had made him convinced of his integrity and good-natured character but also revealed his nave attitude toward politics.

Kim Ji-yun, executive director of Media Research, said support for Moon can be regarded as substantial but he is to face a crucial task of proving his political competitiveness through his bid for an elected post if he sets his sights on presidency.

South Gyeongsang Governor Kim Doo-kwan, who was also a key aide to Roh, indicated that Moon should go beyond inheriting Roh’s values and spirit and demonstrate his own vision if he succeeds in adapting to real politics.

What holds the key to Moon’s political future, some commentators note, is whether he has the will to take power, though he has an aversion to the words. They also say his inseparable ties with Roh may be also a subject Moon would have to overcome ― at least in part ― if he is to make a serious challenge for presidency and draw enough votes to secure his win.

Many observers see Moon is expected to make a final decision on his ultimate political goal based on the results of his efforts to merge opposition parties and defeat the ruling party in the next parliamentary elections. “Now is not the time for Moon to decide on his presidential bid. It is too early,” said a DP official.

When pressed into giving a tip on his possible presidential plan in the interview with a local weekly, Moon reiterated that for the time being, he would be concentrating on launching a unified opposition party, adding, “In the course, the circumstances may be settled on their own.”

By Kim Kyung-ho (