Moon Jae-in, who declared victory in today’s South Korean presidential election, has led a life as turbulent as that of the nation he will lead. The son of refugees who fled North Korea during the 1950 -53 Korean War, Moon, 64, grew up in poverty and spent time in jail for protesting military-backed dictators. Moon later became a human rights lawyer and worked for late liberal President Roh Moo-hyun.
Moon’s North Korean parents resettled in South Korea’s southeast before he was born in January 1953. They initially lived in a POW camp. As a boy, he often went to a Catholic church with a bucket to get free US corn flour and milk powder.
After entering Seoul’s’ Kyung Hee University in 1972, Moon joined a pro-democracy movement to topple the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea for 18 years until his 1979 assassination. Park is the father of recently ousted conservative President Park Geun-hye.
In 1975, Moon was jailed for months for staging anti- government protests before being conscripted into the military’s special forces.
Moon became a lawyer and joined Roh’s law office in the early 1980s. They defended the rights of poor laborers and student activists until Roh entered politics in 1988.
Moon says their friendship changed his life.
After Roh became president in 2003, Moon became what local media called Roh’s “King secretary” or “Roh Moo-hyun’s shadow.”
When Roh was impeached in 2004 over alleged election law violations, Moon served as a defense lawyer before a court restored Roh’s presidential power. After Roh left office and faced a corruption investigation, Moon was his lawyer. Roh jumped to his death in May 2009.
Moon says Roh’s death led him to politics. Moon lost the 2012 election to Park Geun-hye by a million votes.
When a corruption scandal involving Park flared last fall, Moon saw his popularity rise amid massive public outrage toward her conservative government.