In Singapore on June 12, as Donald Trump vigorously shook hands with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, the man behind this improbable meeting leaned forward in his chair and smiled. South Korean president Moon Jae-in, just thirteen months into his five-year term, had helped arrange the first-ever summit between an American president and the leader of North Korea. Yet Moon was careful to keep a respectful distance. He watched on a television monitor in the Blue House, the presidential compound in Seoul. It was, however symbolic, a goal he had pursued over two decades in politics, and it brought him a step closer to healing familial and national wounds. Moon is a child of the Korean War, the son of refugees from the pre-division North. But unlike Trump and Kim, who swapped boasts and missile threats just months before their handshake, Moon didn’t feel the need to take credit.
The meeting between Trump and Kim, beyond its cinematic, exaggerated quality, represented the final leg of a diplomatic relay—the US and South Korea, North and South Korea, and finally the US and North Korea. It was a relay in another sense, too: Moon had overseen the last substantial round of multilateral negotiations with North Korea, in 2007, which resulted in inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and suspension of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, at least for a time. Moon was then the chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun, his mentor and former law partner, who was finishing up his term. In October of that year, Roh became only the second South Korean president to cross the 38th parallel, where he met with Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il. In Moon’s memoir, The Destiny of Moon Jae-in, he writes that this North–South summit was “the most important thing I did as chief of staff.”1
Moon’s ascent to the presidency, after a decade of hard-right rule, reads like Korean melodrama. He was elected in May 2017 following the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, the daughter of General Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea from 1963 to 1979. In the fall of 2016, it was revealed that Park fille had secretly outsourced presidential decision-making to an old friend, opening up the Blue House to bribes from major corporations. Park had already shown herself to be incompetent and cruelly aloof, as in 2014 when hundreds of students were killed in a preventable ferry accident and she failed to address a nation in profound despair. Through subzero temperatures, some 17 million South Koreans attended months of sit-ins to call for Park’s ouster and to protest corruption in the Blue House. Moon, then the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, became a regular of the Candlelight Movement, in his puffy coat and leather gloves. By May 2017, Park was impeached and jailed, and Moon elected president. He promised voters “A New Korea” and “People First.”
The “destiny” of the title…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.