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Moon Jae-in: Son of war refugees rises to power [PHOTOS]

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Moon Jae-in poses with the late President Roh Moo-hyun after being appointed senior presidential secretary for civil affairs in 2004. / Korea Times file photo
Moon Jae-in poses with the late President Roh Moo-hyun after being appointed senior presidential secretary for civil affairs in 2004. / Korea Times file photo

By Jung Min-ho


It was a freezing day in December. About 14,000 North Korean refugees got on the U.S. ship, SS Meredith Victory, at the besieged port of Hungnam in North Korea.

Only hours before Chinese and North Korean communist forces swept into the area, Captain Leonard LaRue ordered to unload almost all of the arms and military supplies from the ship to take aboard as many refugees as possible.

The parents of Moon Jae-in, now the president of Korea, were among the 14,000 who arrived on Geoje Island in South Gyeongsang Province on Christmas Eve in 1950.

So when Yoo Seong-min of the Bareun Party asked whether Moon considers North Korea as the primary enemy of the South during a TV debate for presidential candidates, he could not say he does. For Moon ― and many others, the question can't be answered simply with a yes or no. It was the homeland his parents missed for the rest of their entire lives, and it still is home to tens of millions of innocent people enduring dictatorship.

Right-wing politicians have been trying hard to paint him as a "North Korea sympathizer." They aren't entirely wrong, but he also deeply appreciates the American captain who saved the lives of his parents, Moon wrote in his biographical book, "From Destiny to Hope."


Moon was born in 1953, months before the end of the Korean War. Since as early as he can remember, life was always hard. His father and mother worked day and night but the future never looked bright.

As a boy, Moon had to wait in line for corn flour and milk powder given out by Catholic churches. He didn't like doing it, but he liked the nuns who were always nice to him.

So when he entered the prestigious Gyeongnam Middle School in Busan, Moon was shocked to see rich classmates who ate different food and lived in different houses. Around that time, he became aware of social inequality.

During his high school years at Kyungnam High School in Busan / Korea Times file photo
During his high school years at Kyungnam High School in Busan / Korea Times file photo

His father was a man of few words, but he often expressed his political opinions to his family, which influenced Moon to shape his own beliefs.


Moon participated in his first anti-government protest in 1969 when then-President Park Chung-hee, the father of former president Park Geun-hye, tried to revise the Constitution to pave the way for his third term.

After entering the College of Law at Kyung Hee University in 1972, Moon continued the fight against the strongman, who declared the Yushin Constitution that year to extend his hold on power.

Moon was at the forefront of student protests, which occupy most of his college memories. He was eventually arrested and imprisoned at Seodaemun Detention Center in Seoul. But he never regretted any part of it. In fact, he thinks he was lucky to be there ― with Kim Jung-sook, who later became his wife.

One day, Moon was hit by a tear gas cannister and passed out immediately. When he woke up, he saw her wiping his face with a wet towel. It did not take long for him to fall in love with the Catholic woman, who reminded him of the nuns of his childhood.

During his college years at Kyung Hee University in Seoul / Korea Times file photo
During his college years at Kyung Hee University in Seoul / Korea Times file photo

During his mandatory military service, Moon was drafted into the Special Forces. During his service, he took part in many missions, including the response to the 1976 Axe Murder Incident, in which North Korean soldiers killed two U.S. Army officers.


He passed the bar exam in 1980 and finished second at the Judicial Training and Research Institute two years later. But he couldn't become a judge as he expected because of his anti-government protest records.
During his military service as a member of the Special Forces / Korea Times file photo
During his military service as a member of the Special Forces / Korea Times file photo
Some major law firms offered him high-paying jobs, but he decided to do things he believed were more meaningful in Busan. Around this time, he met Roh Moo-hyun, who later became the president of Korea.

They worked for people who couldn't afford lawyers. Many of them were the employees of factories exploiting cheap labor.

In his autobiography, Moon describes this stage of his life as a "very happy period," in which he also married Kim after seven years together.

"Looking back, it feels like everything, including the moment I met him and the path I chose to walk, was destined to happen," Moon wrote.

After years of helping them, Roh believed politics would be able to solve many of their problems and decided to enter the political arena. Roh persuaded Moon to join him, but he refused. But when Roh became president in 2002, Moon finally accepted Roh's offer to serve as his senior secretary for civil affairs.

The Roh administration tried many ways to achieve political reforms as demanded but fell short of high expectations. During this period, Moon said he experienced a great deal of both "satisfactions and frustration."

Moon and his wife Kim Jung-sook / Korea Times file photo
Moon and his wife Kim Jung-sook / Korea Times file photo

Moon said working for the government was like a "feeling of wearing someone else's clothes" and always missed working as lawyer. After the five-year term ended, he said he was "relieved."


But his dream of a "simple life" shattered when Roh jumped off a cliff to his death in 2009, as a corruption investigation closed in. It was Moon who tearfully announced the news.

His death ironically brought Moon back to politics.

Moon waves to the crowd during the presidential campaign in 2012. He lost the race to former President Park Geun-hye, 48 percent to 52 percent. / Korea Times file photo
Moon waves to the crowd during the presidential campaign in 2012. He lost the race to former President Park Geun-hye, 48 percent to 52 percent. / Korea Times file photo

"If I had not met Roh, I would probably have lived more comfortably and conveniently, but his passion always woke me up. And so did his death. It drew me back to the path. He said it was destiny. And now he is free from it, but I'm stuck in what he left for me," Moon wrote.




Jung Min-ho mj6c2@koreatimes.co.kr


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