Leading South Korean Presidential Candidate Moon Aims To Negotiate With North

May 5, 2017
Originally published on May 6, 2017 9:50 am

In 2009, a close aide to former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun, who had left office a year earlier, took to a podium on live TV. He looked pale and distraught.

He announced that the former president had taken his own life.

It was a dramatic moment in South Korea. It was also when South Koreans first got to know the man who looks likely to be their next president: Moon Jae-in, that former presidential aide.

"That is probably the seminal moment, when he become known very publicly," says Kim Jiyoon, a research fellow at Seoul's Asan Institute. "He was a chief of staff and also a very close friend of Roh Moo-hyun."

Ahead of Tuesday's presidential election, polls show Moon has more than a double-digit lead on his closest challenger, a former software tycoon. Moon is from the late Roh's Democratic Party, and is likely to revive his late friend's "Sunshine Policy" of dialogue and economic aid to North Korea. Another South Korean president from the same party, Kim Dae-jung, won the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for his engagement with the North.

Under "Sunshine 2.0," as the South Korean media have dubbed his plans, Moon wants to reopen an industrial complex where North and South Koreans work together, just north of the de-militarized zone. He says he's open to meeting the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. And he says he'd like to re-evaluate a deal the previous, conservative president Park Geun-hye signed with the U.S., to install a missile defense system in South Korea.

Moon wrote in his autobiography that South Korea should "learn how to say no" to its historic ally, America.

"So a lot of people are worried [that] if Moon Jae-in is elected, we're going to have rocky relations with the United States," says Kim, the political scientist at Asan. "First of all, President Trump is not really popular in Korea. And second of all, there's a really thorny issue: the THAAD deployment."

THAAD is an acronym for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, the name of the U.S. defense shield designed to shoot down North Korean missiles. It was declared operational this week.

Moon says that rather than arming up, he wants to negotiate with the North. One of his reasons is very personal: His parents are from there. They were rescued by a U.S. warship in 1950, after the Korean War broke out. Moon was born in the South, just before the war ended.

"Critics call him a red — a communist — because his approach to North Korea is dovish," says Tae Ki-soo, Moon's biographer. "Moon treats North Koreans as human beings, because of his parents."

But defectors from North Korea, whose escape stories pull at South Koreans' heartstrings, are some of Moon's most vocal critics. Some 3,000 North Korean defectors vowed this week to leave South Korea if Moon is elected president.

In the banquet room of a high-rise hotel in Seoul last week, North Korean escapees sang the South Korean national anthem, and pledged allegiance to the South's flag. Representatives from most of South Korea's political parties gave speeches, wooing the defectors' votes ahead of Tuesday's election. The conservatives parties got hearty applause, but the response to liberals was barely lukewarm.

"Moon Jae-in should not be president," says Lee Yu-mi, one of the banquet's attendees, who defected from North Korea 11 years ago. "He's too soft. He'll give money to the North, which will strengthen the regime there."

In a recent TV debate, Moon sought a tougher image by holding up an old black-and-white photo of himself in the South Korean Army's special forces, some 40 years ago.

But he's better known for his years as a human-rights lawyer and, before that, a rabble-rousing student protester who got hauled into jail several times.

If elected South Korean president, Moon now wants to be a negotiator — with Pyongyang, one of the most unpredictable regimes in the world.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

South Korea holds a presidential election on Tuesday. The man leading in the polls is a liberal human rights lawyer who says he will seek a less confrontational stance toward North Korea. That would be a big change in South Korean policy. From Seoul, NPR's Lauren Frayer has this profile.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: In 2009, a close aide to the former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun, who had left office a year earlier, took to a podium on live TV. He looked pale and distraught.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOON JAE-IN: (Speaking Korean).

FRAYER: He announced that the former president had taken his own life. It was a dramatic moment in South Korea. It was also when South Koreans first got to know the man who looks likely to be their next president, Moon Jae-in, that former presidential aide.

KIM JIYOON: That was probably the seminal moment that he was known very publicly. He was the chief of staff, and he was also a very close friend of Roh Moo-Hyun.

FRAYER: That's Kim Jiyoon, a research fellow at Seoul's ASAN Institute. She says Moon is likely to revive his late friend's Sunshine Policy of dialogue and economic aid to North Korea. Under Sunshine 2.0, Moon wants to reopen an industrial complex where North and South Koreans work together just north of the demilitarized zone. He says he would meet the North Korean leader. And he wrote in his autobiography that South Korea should learn how to say no to its historic ally America.

KIM: So a lot of people are worried about - well, you know, if Moon Jae-in is elected, then we're going to have very rocky relations with the United States. First of all, President Trump is not really popular in Korea. And second of all, there's a really thorny issue, like a THAAD deployment.

FRAYER: The THAAD deployment, a U.S. defense shield designed to shoot down North Korean missiles. It got up and running this week. Moon says that rather than arming up, he wants to negotiate with the North. And one of his reasons is very personal - his parents were from there. They were rescued by a U.S. warship in 1950 after the Korean War broke out. Moon was born in the South just before the war ended. Tae Ki-soo is Moon's biographer.

TAE KI-SOO: (Speaking Korean).

FRAYER: "Critics call him a Red, a Communist, because his approach to North Korea is dovish," he says. "Moon treats North Koreans as human beings because of his parents."

Defectors from North Korea, whose escape stories pull at South Koreans' heartstrings, are some of Moon's most vocal critics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AEGUKGA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Korean).

FRAYER: The South Korean national anthem rang out at a banquet for defectors in a high-rise hotel in Seoul last week. North Korean escapees pledged allegiance to the South and railed against left-wing politicians like Moon.

LEE YU-MI: Moon Jae-in (speaking Korean).

FRAYER: "Moon Jae-in should not be president," says Lee Yu-mi, who defected from North Korea 11 years ago. "He's too soft. He'll give money to the North, which will strengthen the regime there."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MOON: (Speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Korean).

MOON: (Speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Korean).

FRAYER: In a recent TV debate, Moon sought a tougher image by holding up an old black-and-white photo of himself in the army special forces some 40 years ago. But he's better known for his years as a human rights lawyer and before that, a rabble-rousing student protester who got hauled into jail several times. If elected, South Korean president, Moon now wants to be a negotiator with Pyongyang, one of the most unpredictable regimes in the world.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.