President 'Moon-bama' Enjoying a Honeymoon in South Korea

  • Moon Jae-in hailed as man of the people after election victory
  • Unclear if honeymoon will translate into legislative wins

They call him "Moon-bama."

Two weeks after his election win, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is captivating a nation shaken by scandal and economic struggles. He’s even drawn comparisons to Barack Obama for his cool demeanor and the pop star status both attained during their first days in office.

While honeymoon periods are normal for new leaders, Moon’s focus on relating with average citizens shows that he’s learned from the demise of impeached predecessor Park Geun-hye, who was seen as aloof and corrupt. Whether he can convert the popularity bump into legislative wins -- particularly on reforming family-run conglomerates known as chaebol -- remains to be seen.

“The high support rate now may help Moon push through some of his agenda, but that support is likely to wane as time passes,” said Lee Jae-mook, who teaches political science at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. “There are issues liberal and conservative voters disagree on, such as whether it is good to pursue dialogue with North Korea." 

Moon Jae-in consoles family members of the victims of the 1980 pro-democracy uprising on May 18.

Photographer: Kim Min-Hee-Pool/Getty Images

Man of the People

A former civil rights lawyer, Moon is South Korea’s first liberal president in about a decade. Unlike Park, the daughter of a dictator who ruled the country for almost two decades, Moon came from a family of North Korean refugees.

Images of Moon as a man of the people have played over and over on Korean television since the election. He has been shown hugging the families of victims at a memorial for a pro-democracy uprising; carrying his own lunch tray at a cafeteria; and sitting under a tree on the grounds of the presidential Blue House with senior aides, jacket off and coffee cup in hand.

Park Geun-hye arrives at the Seoul Central District Court on May 23.

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

Choi Byoung-hwa, a manager at a construction company in Seoul, is among those who see similarities between Moon and Obama.

“I used to be frustrated looking at media reports, learning about Park and the people who committed wrongdoings, but watching television news is really enjoyable these days," said Choi, who said she didn’t vote for Moon. "Korean society is very hierarchical, and to see the number one person in power avoiding formality was refreshing."

‘Less Hierarchical’

Park appeared in court on Tuesday for the first time since she was jailed on bribery charges in March, and denied all 18 charges against her. When she left office, her approval rating was in the single digits.

By contrast, Moon is at astronomical heights. A Gallup poll released May 19 found 87 percent of respondents were positive about the outlook for his performance, the most since Gallup started asking the question in 1993. Seventy-one percent said that of Park at the start of her term.

The front pages of Korea’s three major newspapers on Wednesday carried starkly different images of Moon and Park from the previous day. Moon was pictured attending a memorial service for former President Roh Moo-hyun, while Park was shown sitting in court next to her confidante and co-defendant Choi Soon-sil.

“The photo of Moon having coffee with staffers doesn’t just show his personality, but suggests the new government would be less hierarchical and more open to diverse views,” said You Hye-young, an assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University.

Moon has also earned points with his personnel appointments. He has chosen some candidates with no previous relationship to him in contrast to Park, who was impeached over a confidante wielding inappropriate influence on state affairs. He has also named women to key posts.

Kang Kyung-wha

Photographer: Norberto Duarte/AFP via Getty Images

Moon selected as his foreign minister United Nations adviser Kang Kyung-wha. If confirmed, she would be the first women to head the 70-year-old ministry. And for the first time in its half-century history, the Veterans Affairs Ministry is headed by a woman, a former helicopter pilot who fought the defense ministry after it forced her to step down following surgery for breast cancer.

“So far Moon’s appointments to key posts have showed his openness to reforms and consideration of diversity,” said Hankuk’s Lee.

According to the Gallup survey, 60 percent of respondents approved of Moon’s choice of prime minister. Only 23 percent supported Park’s nominee at the beginning of her term, a similar poll found.

Big Challenges

Some are already trying to capitalize on Moon’s K-pop-like celebrity. The owner of a coffee shop near the Blue House is selling "Moon-blend" beans, based on flavors Moon liked when working as a staffer for Roh.

Sportswear brand Black Yak, which made the outfit Moon wore on a hike with reporters several days after the election, decided to reintroduce the outdated model after customers started asking for it.

Moon’s popularity will almost certainly wane in time. Delivering on campaign promises to reform the chaebol and create jobs for young people will be difficult. He also must face tensions with China over the deployment of a U.S.-led missile defense system, as well as North Korea’s nuclear threats.

People watch a news coverage of the Pukguksong-2 missile rocket launch in Pyongyang on May 22.

Photographer: Kim Won-jin/AFP via Getty Images

Read more: Moon Vows to Seek Peace With North Korea, Take On Companies

Compromise will be essential to pass legislation, as his party only holds 40 percent of seats in parliament -- short of the 60 percent necessary to pass key bills.

Nonetheless, polls show he’s off to a good start. Moon could remain popular if he continues to seek the public’s understanding on contentious issues, according to Vanderbilt’s You.

“Given that Koreans put a high weight on transparency and communication, Moon’s government could consider a policy briefing for big initiatives, preferably held by the president himself,” she said.

— With assistance by Kanga Kong

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