South Korean President Moon Jae-in talks on phone at the presidential Blue House in Seoul. Picture: Yonhap via AP
There are men who are destined for greatness and something tells me that newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in may be one of those people, writes Shannon Ebrahim.

Just take his public statement upon entering office, “I take this office empty-handed, and I will leave the office empty-handed.” That is the kind of leader we all admire - someone who aspires to be a true servant of the people.

To show that his words were not mere rhetoric, Moon refused to take up residence in the Blue House - the symbol of an elitist presidency, but has chosen rather to work from a government complex in the busy centre of the capital, Seoul. Even as a top aide to the president from 2003-2008, Moon never felt comfortable at the Blue House. He was more comfortable trekking in the Himalayas, or offering pro bono legal assistance to South Korean workers.

Moon has ridden the tide of anger sweeping South Korea over government corruption, particularly that of impeached President Park Guen-hye. He has promised to sever the collusive ties between government and business, his emphasis being that politicians and businesses which grease each other’s palms have to be stopped. He has also promised to limit the influence in politics of the “chaebols,” or powerful family-run conglomerates.

But Moon’s priority from the outset is to establish warmer relations with North Korea, and to reverse the antagonist policies of the previous two conservative administrations, which only served to heighten tensions on the peninsula. Moon’s commitment to defusing tensions between the North and South has the prospects of being his greatest legacy as a leader.

The polarisation is particularly personal for Moon, who is the son of North Korean refugees. He once said that he hoped to see the peaceful reunification of the two Koreas, and take his mother to visit her birthplace. North Korea’s state-run media have not commented specifically on Moon’s win but said that it was time the two Koreas could put a period of confrontation behind them, “and open a new era of independent reunification.” If any man was ever capable of turning North Korea away from nuclear brinkmanship and towards dialogue and possibly peace, it would be Moon Jae-in. There have only been two summits between the presidents of North and South Korea since the 1953 armistice, which took place in 2000 and 2007. Moon spearheaded the preparations for the 2007 Summit. Clearly he believed in the “Sunshine Policy” of the liberal government of the time, which was committed to actively engaging Pyongyang. The concept was that gentle persuasion works better than force.

The liberal administrations made great strides in developing joint projects with the North that served as confidence-building measures. One was a tourism project on the North Korean side of the border that the South Koreans could visit. As a result, North Korea agreed to allow reunions between families from the North and South who had been separated.

A joint industrial park had also been opened near the border where North Koreans could work in South Korean owned factories. Under the ensuing conservative administrations in South Korea, however, tensions escalated and reversed much goodwill. The now impeached President Park closed the industrial park last year in response to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test. Moon says he will seek to reopen the industrial park and tourism projects.

The first appointments Moon has made since becoming president have set the stage for détente with North Korea. He has appointed Lee Nak-yon as prime minister, who was a political ally of the former liberal presidents who held the two summits with North Korea. He also appointed Suh Hoon as the head of national intelligence, who had set up the summits between the North and South. Both are in favour of easing tensions with the North.

Moon has publicly said that he is prepared to travel to Pyongyang, Beijing, Washington, and Tokyo in order to defuse the security tensions in the region. China will no doubt welcome Moon’s electoral success as he had campaigned against the deployment by the US of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), which Beijing considers a threat to its national security. 

Moon said on the campaign trail that the decision to deploy THAAD was made hastily, and that his government should have the final say. Removing THAAD (which only became operational last week) from South Korea’s security apparatus, would go a long way towards building confidence with the North.

It is for the international community to give Moon all the necessary support in his diplomacy, and bolster the prospects for peace.

The Sunday Independent