Down-to-earth Moon earns star status

Airport employees taking selfies with Mr Moon at the Incheon International Airport in Seoul last week. Mr Moon's popularity is at a peak, with 87 per cent of respondents in a Gallup poll positive about the outlook for his performance. South Korean Pr
South Korean President Moon Jae In waiting in line to get a meal at the presidential Blue House after a hike with journalists several days after the election. His Black Yak jacket - an outdated model - has enjoyed renewed popularity since he appeared in it. Black Yak has since reintroduced the model. PHOTO: REUTERS
Airport employees taking selfies with Mr Moon at the Incheon International Airport in Seoul last week. Mr Moon's popularity is at a peak, with 87 per cent of respondents in a Gallup poll positive about the outlook for his performance. South Korean Pr
Airport employees taking selfies with Mr Moon at the Incheon International Airport in Seoul last week. Mr Moon's popularity is at a peak, with 87 per cent of respondents in a Gallup poll positive about the outlook for his performance. PHOTO: REUTERS

S. Korean leader's popularity may help him push his reform agenda

SEOUL • 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 has even drawn comparisons to former US president Barack Obama for his cool demeanour and the pop star status both attained during their first days in office.

While honeymoon periods are normal for new leaders, Mr Moon's focus on relating to average citizens shows that he has learnt from the downfall 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 Mr 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." 

A former civil rights lawyer, Mr 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, Mr Moon comes from a family of North Korean refugees.

Images of Mr 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.

Ms Choi Byoung Hwa, a manager at a construction company in Seoul, is among those who see similarities between Mr Moon and Mr 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 Ms Choi, who said she did not vote for Mr Moon. "Korean society is very hierarchical, and to see the No. 1 person in power avoiding formality was refreshing."

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, President Moon's approval rating is at astronomical heights. A Gallup poll released last Friday found that 87 per cent of respondents were positive about the outlook for his performance, the most since Gallup started asking the question in 1993. Seventy-one per cent said that of Park at the start of her term.

"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 Assistant Professor You Hye Young from Vanderbilt University.

Mr 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.

Mr Moon selected as his foreign minister United Nations adviser Kang Kyung Wha. If confirmed, she will be the first woman 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 defence 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 Mr Lee.

Some are already trying to capitalise on President Moon's K-pop-like celebrity. The owner of a coffee shop near the Blue House is selling "Moon-blend" beans, based on flavours Mr Moon liked when working as a staffer for former president Roh Moo Hyun.

Sportswear brand Black Yak, which made the outfit Mr Moon wore on a hike with reporters several days after the election, reintroduced the outdated model after customers asked for it.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 25, 2017, with the headline 'Down-to-earth Moon earns star status'. Print Edition | Subscribe